Seven score and eleven years ago, on November 9th, President Abraham Lincoln took a train from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in order to deliver what is now considered one of the most famous speeches in United States history.

I could tell you a lot of interesting stories about the event at the cemetery that day.

For instance, it may be strange to imagine today, but Lincoln had an opener go on before him. The famous orator, Edward Everett, gave his own speech, entitled “The Battles of Gettysburg.” It was two hours long and over thirteen-thousand words. Back in this time without television, movie theaters, and rock concerts, public speeches were exciting and entertaining, and, for the country town of Gettysburg, likely very rare. People would ride for hours, perhaps even days to hear someone with only half of Everett’s renown, and would then monopolize dinner party conversation for years with talk of how they got to see such an event. So when Lincoln came up to take the stage from Everett, the crowd was gearing up for the show of their lives. With such an opener, they couldn’t imagine what kind of address Lincoln had in his pocket.

Only Lincoln hadn’t prepared to give them that show. If the legends are true, he barely prepared at all. One story has Lincoln writing his copy of the speech on the train ride from Washington, on the back of an envelope. Other, more credible accounts swear that he was in the beginning stages of small pox when he arrived on those fields in Pennsylvania. But no matter the truth of these statements, the Gettysburg Address, a humble speech with no grand title or even much of an introduction, had fewer than 300 words, and took only about two minutes to recite. On its face, it didn’t seem much in the way of dinner party bragging rights.

I could also point out to you some of the linguistic legacies of the text of the speech.

For instance, the opening phrase “four score and seven years ago” has developed as much fame as, if not more than, the speech itself. Perhaps even more common today is the definition of Democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Near references to this phrase have sprouted throughout America’s political landscape, both historical and more recent. Perhaps the people who say it know what they are referencing, and perhaps they don’t, but it should be noted that Lincoln himself most likely pulled the phrase from a sermon he had read of Theodore Parker. Parker was a reformer and a famous abolitionist, and he may have pulled the phrase directly from John Wycliffe’s prologue to the first English Bible, which read, “This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.” Parker and his sermons and speeches would go on to inspire other abolitionists, and later Civil Rights Activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Specifically Parker may take some credit for King’s famous line in his speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, “The arc of the Moral Universe Is long, but It bends toward Justice.”

But I’m from Illinois, born and raised, and the words “The Land of Lincoln” will be stamped across my license plates for just a few more weeks, so we all know that what I really want to talk about is the man who gave that speech.

The year was 1963 and the American Civil War was only half over, though no one in the crowd knew that. Up until the battle at Gettysburg, the Union had been losing so thoroughly that the Confederacy’s military and political leaders thought that peace would be achievable by the end of the year. But then Gettysburg happened and as the last of the smoke cleared, the Union still stood, though tattered and tired. The ridge along the middle of the battlefield—Cemetery Ridge, it’s called—is known as the High-water mark of the Confederacy. The moment Confederate troops tried to take that ridge from the Union and failed, the Confederate Army lost the war; everything after that was just delaying the inevitable. But in November of 1863, no one knew that yet.

So Lincoln, asked to attend the commemoration of the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery, making his way from Washington to this tiny town where, four months earlier, thousands of men died in service to him, was probably wondering whether it had been worth it. Tired and feverish from his oncoming small pox, he was probably acutely feeling his battle tiredness. Though he was the president of the Union, he was just as war worn as any of the citizens he would meet at Gettysburg. He, perhaps more than anyone else, asked himself whether keeping the Union together was worth all the lives that had already been lost in the attempt. He probably wondered whether the families of those fallen would consider their grief to be a price worth paying for the citizenship of unwilling southerners.

I’m not a Lincoln scholar. From what I remember of my more recent American history classes, he was not as honest and righteous as my Chicago-area elementary school teachers led us to believe, and he likely had many selfish reasons to go to war with the Confederacy that had nothing to do with justice or freedom. These views of our 16th President don’t exactly mesh with this account I am providing of him.

I am, however, a scholar of stories. And the story of Lincoln, as told by his Gettysburg Address, is the story of the Civil War that I want to remember. In my mind, he was heavily conflicted and terrified, as we all are, that our actions have consequences that we cannot control or even fathom. In my mind, the humility of the phrase, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” is really just Lincoln’s prayer that his part in the war, win or lose, will not be the focus of history. And when he tries to convince his audience to keep fighting in honor of the dead whose graves they sought to dedicate, he is really trying to convince himself that he still has a role to play and that he can still bring value to the blood on his hands as President of a divided nation.

True or not, that story is worth something to me. Some stories, especially the ones with characters and struggles we can relate to, are worth believing in if only because they give you a leg to stand on in this world of doubt and fear. So that is the story I choose to hear when I listen to the Gettysburg address.


For Mary’s final Gettysburg-themed post for the summer, check back at The Post Calvin next month on the 19th.

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