Gettysburg Address: Complete the task - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Gettysburg Address: Complete the task

My mother made an awful arrangement for me to be tutored in English on summer days by our neighbor, Dot Dissell. A retired English teacher,  she was as well versed in the angst of teen pupils as she was in reading and writing and displayed an incontrovertible enthusiasm for her task. She handed me a sheet entitled, The Gettysburg Address and asked me to read it before the next day. That evening, I thrashed through it; thank God it was short. The first sentence was poetic, even to my callow eye. I brushed through the rest.

“What is your impression of the text?” Ms. Dissell inquired the next morning.

No response.

Life mask of Abraham Lincoln. (Photo by Douglas Christian and courtesy of Chesterwood, studio of  Daniel Chester French.(c)1995 Douglas Christian)

Life mask of Abraham Lincoln. (Photo by Douglas Christian and courtesy of Chesterwood, studio of Daniel Chester French.(c)1995 Douglas Christian)

“OK, let’s pull it apart,” she persevered.  My mind was latched onto thoughts of sailing, wind and water.

“This speech,” she began, “will teach you most everything you need to know about English composition.”

“At least it’s short,” I mused, “and I can get out of here soon.”

“Did you perceive the structure?” she asked.

Then she began to dissect it and explained how Lincoln sequenced the narrative from past to present to future and told it as a resurrection tale, whereby an incipient democracy is conceived in liberty, matures over eighty-seven years, becomes on the verge of demise only to enjoy “a new birth of freedom”.  She mapped the architecture and grid-work of Lincoln’s writing; while I didn’t enjoy those lessons, I remain grateful.

I often find myself recalling the address, not because I memorized it, but because those words are engraved in memory. Over time, I have read numerous articles, each adding a detail or insight, and all augmenting to my depth of appreciation.

Lincoln’s brief ‘Dedicatory Remarks’ followed Edward Everett’s two hour oration, known in 1863 and for years thereafter as The Gettysburg Address. Only later did Abraham Lincoln’s remarks become known as The Gettysburg Address and enjoyed the acclaim of Everett’s sermon. Contemporary critics preferred that Lincoln’s remarks be little known nor fondly remembered. The Harrisburg Patriot & Union sneered, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” (The Patriot & Union, now known as the Patriot-News retracted those remarks 150 years later – on Nov. 17, 2013.)

The Chicago Times chimed in that Lincoln’s remarks were “silly, flat and dishwatery utterances.”

The London Times jeered, “Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.” Lincoln’s word were babble to most minds.

However Edward Everett generously wrote to Lincoln a few days later, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

He recognized a new style of speaking and Lincoln, graciously replied that he was glad his speech was not “a total failure.” Despite his misgivings, Lincoln focused on the central idea. Lincoln called it “the nub” and often asked aids to cut unnecessary dialogue in meetings and get to the nub.

Nov. 19,  1863:  Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous 'Gettysburg Address' speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom  (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

Nov. 19, 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

In 1863, verbose orations were a strong tradition; theatrical four hour Sunday sermons were common. A public speaker often had as much acclaim as a movie star. Senior members of Congress often held the floor for hours and more junior members would be consigned to scribing bills. A 33-year-old member of the Continental Congress was relegated to such a dreadful task in 1776; Thomas Jefferson protested mightily but reluctantly agreed to write the Declaration of Independence.

Abraham Lincoln’s remarks were noted mainly for brevity and few saw the splendor of them. One paper however called it, “a perfect gem,” and Charles Sumner wrote soon after Lincoln’s assassination, “In the modesty of his nature he said ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are always more [important] than battles.”

The Gettysburg Address marked a signal moment in American history, for it redefined a greater spiritual purpose for the United States, not merely as a Constitutional Democracy but a land of liberty and equality. Hence it shifted the preeminent spiritual document of our founding fathers from the Constitution of the United States to the Declaration of Independence. It redefined the United States as “a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,”, and gave purpose to the bloody war as a divine test of that democracy, reaffirming our commitment to the task at hand to preserve freedom. All in ten sentences!

By saving the union, Abraham Lincoln became another founding father. His unpretentiousness balanced the overriding ambition of the address. One can better appreciate how simple and sincere it is with a supercilious delivery; it falls apart in absurdity. Witness Stephen Colbert’s “strangely sinister” reading.

The memorial events at Gettysburg transpired during an uncertain time, and while Lincoln’s comments were resolute, they were conversely driven by the reigning insecurity of the moment. Shelby Foote observed “the North fought that war with one hand behind its back.”


Abraham Lincoln meeting with his generals in 1863 in Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)

Not only was Lincoln leading the conflict against the Confederacy but simultaneously fending off Northern political challengers and reluctant military officers.

Politically, former General George McClellan posed a grave potential political threat, and though Lincoln wouldn’t know in 1863 that McClellan would become a nominee for President, the Democratic platform was clear: capitulate.

Militarily, while Grant had succeeded in Jacksonville, at the Battle of Gettysburg itself, commanding General George Meade failed to follow Robert E. Lee’s forces and finish him off. Lee, ever fortunate with an incompetent opposition, escaped again to fight another two years.

In that shadow, The Gettysburg Address is an urgent plea for action. It’s a pithy call to finish the job. If Abe Lincoln tweeted the message, it might look like this:

4score&7 yrs ago R fathers Bgan nation 4freedom+equality Now in war 2C if can Ndure Meet on battlefield 2 honor dead Nation shall not perish

Aaron Copeland concluded Lincoln Portrait with the address itself, as Dot DIssell taught, “For on the battleground at Gettysburg, this is what he said: he said, ‘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—and that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


About the author

Douglas Christian

Douglas Christian is a multimedia Capitol Hill reporter. He has covered the 2016 Democratic and Republican conventions as a photographer and has produced numerous audio and video reports for Talk Media News. He has written scores of articles and op-ed pieces for the Baltimore Post Examiner, touching on politics to the arts and to hi-tech. Douglas has worked as a photographer for decades. He has produced a few books on Oriental rugs; one was on Armenian Oriental rugs and the other was published by Rizzoli and co-authored by his uncle entitled, ‘Oriental Rugs of the Silk Route’. Douglas attended the Putney School in Vermont, a tiny progressive school in Vermont, where he became enthralled with photography and rebuilt a 4x5 camera. Later during college, he attended the Ansel Adams Workshop at Yosemite, where he determined to pursue photography. He transferred to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and received a BFA from Tufts. He has photographed an array of people including politicos such as William F. Buckley, Jr., George McGovern, Edward Teller and Cesar Chavez. His photography URL is His twitter feed is @xiwix. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. Contact the author.

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