Today is the 147th anniversary of the delivery of the “Gettysburg Address,” which was presented at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four-and-a-half months after the conclusion of the titanic battle which took place around the town. The address starts out in the following manner:
“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”
Not familiar with this version of the speech, eh? That’s because the featured speaker that day was not Abraham Lincoln, but a politician named Edward Everett who was famous for his oration skills. His 13,000-word speech (a short novel is about 50,000 words) lasted for over two hours. When he concluded, Lincoln rose and delivered his two-minute “address,” which redefined the war aims of the North by elevating the goal of freedom for all Americans to the same level as the preservation of the Union; not an easy task in only ten sentences and 272 words:
“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.”
Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not write this speech at the last minute on the back of an envelope. Who could? It was actually first drafted in the White House and went through several revisions.
Everett’s words are universally forgotten, while Lincoln’s get memorized by American school children and carved into monuments. When you tweak the wording of one line in the speech to say, “The world will little note, nor long remember what Everett said here, but it can never forget what Lincoln did here,” you get a better view of how things turned out.
Which goes to show, brevity is not only the soul of wit, but of oratory as well.