On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln added a vital coda to the United States mission statement articulated in the Declaration of Independence nearly a hundred years earlier. Gary Wills, among other historians and commentators, has argued that with this single speech Lincoln reframed the purpose of the American experiment as well as clarifying its core values. Those values, it is fair to say, are today under the greatest threat since the Civil War today. Lincoln’s address lasted just two or three minutes (it was not even announced beforehand as a speech, but rather “remarks”), but also reframed the purpose of the war itself, as not only to preserve the union, but a struggle for freedom and equality for all.
There has been so much written about the Gettysburg Address that it would be irresponsible for me to attempt to analyze it here. It probably isn’t necessary to analyze the speech. Few statements speak more clearly for themselves: if ever a speech embodied the principle of res ipsa loquitur, this is it:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.“
The performance of the speech you hear in the recording above was that of the great British actor Charles Laughton, who became America’s unofficial Gettysburg Address specialist after his stirring and ironic rendition of the speech in the film, “Ruggles of Red Gap.” Unfortunately no embeddable video of that moment survives on the web, except one with French subtitles that I couldn’t bear.
In a Wild West saloon, reference is made to “what Lincoln said at Gettysburg,” and all the cowboys ask each other, “What did Lincoln say at Gettysburg?” Then, quietly, unexpectedly, Ruggles the English butler (Laughton), the only foreign-born man in the room, stands and recites the speech from memory as the Americans listen in awe. When the film was first shown in 1935, audiences frequently stood and applauded after Laughton finished. At that point in our history, Lincoln’s words had faded from memory; amazingly, the film itself, an unassuming “fish out of water” comedy, caused the Address to regain its proper stature, and to be more widely known and quoted.
It may be time for a remake. Abraham Lincoln was among our nation’s indispensable leaders whose statues were toppled in the midst of the George Floyd Freakout and its sibling, The Great Stupid. I wonder how many Americans today know, much less appreciate, “what Lincoln said at Gettysburg”?