The power of brevity: Remembering the Gettysburg Address
Gerald Shuster is a University of Pittsburgh political communication professor. He spoke to the Trib regarding the rhetorical strengths of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which marks its 150th anniversary on Tuesday.
Q: Is the key to this speech's power the fact that it packs so much punch using so few words?
A: Yeah, it's the brevity and the effectiveness of the 270 words. That it was kind of impromptu, yet still so rhetorically effective and inspirational, makes it all the more amazing.
You know, hardly anyone ever talks about the speaker who preceded Lincoln (former U.S. Sen. Edward Everett), because whatever he delivered in the (two-hour speech) wasn't anything of significance.
But this rhetoric of Lincoln's was direct. He called upon God, he called upon the memory of people and (their) patriotism and the service (they) provided.
The speech had the impact that it did because of the choice of words, Lincoln's slow and deliberate style of delivery and his ability to target the tone and mood of the audience for that occasion.
Q: Could you elaborate on Lincoln's choice of words? What made them special?
A: He was able to look at the audience and not (be) macabre even though they say the stench of death was still very much apparent when he gave that speech.
His rhetoric parallels both patriotic appeal and religious appeal. (He noted) the (burial) ground is dedicated not so much because people died there, but because they fought for a cause. He didn't say “died”; he said people “gave their last full measure of devotion.”
He mentions a nation “under God,” much like current presidents do when they conclude their really important speeches with “God Bless the United States of America.”
Q: Was the “under God” reference common (for presidents) at the time?
A: No. Remember, they were working hard to remove religion from government focus. They were sticking literally to the Constitution.
Q: Is it safe to call the Gettysburg Address the most well-known and influential speech in American history?
A: I think there would be little doubt about that. There have been many good public addresses by presidents and others. But perhaps the only other ones that come close to (the Gettysburg Address) are (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt's Day of Infamy speech and (John Kennedy's) inaugural address.
But if there's any speech that the average person knows, if you gave them a couple of lines from it, it's the Gettysburg Address. I doubt there's any other speech out there that if you gave people a few lines from it, they could easily identify it.
Q: One of the more famous lines in the address is, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.“ That obviously turned out not to be the case. Do you think Lincoln was clueless that he had crafted such an enduring speech?
A: I think he probably meant that this was so important, but however important it is to us today, people are not likely to remember it tomorrow. That's kind of standard in human nature — no matter how important something is, other things will become more important down the road.
(That line) was kind of a prophecy that didn't come true, thank goodness.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or email@example.com).
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Pirates gaining bad big-game rep
- Senior laden Robert Morris men’s hockey team hopes to erase last season’s disappointment
- Pitt O-line responds to coach’s challenge
- Steelers quarterback Vick getting more acquainted with offense
- Energy efficiency goes mainstream with help of regulations, demand
- Steelers hoping to establish run early against San Diego
- Pirates notebook: Fastball command issues hurt Cole against Cubs
- Penn State coaches are happy with quarterback Hackenberg’s play
- Environmental watchdog sues world’s largest steelmaker over Pennsylvania pollution
- New-look Steelers secondary is gaining some cohesion
- Feds tapped top Pa. Treasury official’s phone during McCord probe