A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Speech By: Abraham Lincoln Date: November 19, 1863 Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Occasion: Dedication of National Cemetery Length (words): 267 Video Posted: None Available Text Posted:Avalon Project - Gettysburg Address
The purpose of this initial post is to establish the format by which we will analyze all other speeches. Volumes have been written on the less than three hundred words of this speech, and this analysis does not endeavor to match them. Instead, it is to show, by way of a commonly familiar work, how we will assess newer speeches.
It should escape no one that this is one of the great political speeches of all time for a reason. Unlike most political speeches, Lincoln does not once engage in self-congratulation or bombast. He mentions neither his role as Commander in Chief, nor his place in the larger war effort. He immediately establishes a shared identity with his audience, "our fathers brought forth," and does so in biblical language, "Four score and seven years," immediately establishing his appeal to a higher set of ideals.
It is a work rich with imagery: "The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." Without ever saying so, just by using the words "struggled," and "living and dead," Lincoln conveys that the consecration which took place here was in that holiest of all waters - blood.
This is also the time to put to rest one of the great "urban legends" surrounding this speech. It was not written on the back of an envelope. It is brief, but not that brief. It was, in fact, written on a piece of Executive Mansion stationery, and a second lined sheet of paper.
Four score 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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we can not 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, under God, 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.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.