November 20, 2013 by brettdgale
When one recalls that the phrase “detailed programmatic specificity” was uttered in a public speaking engagement or sees an Australian Prime Minister using a Power Point presentation it is not unfair to ask if political oratory is dead – killed by a thousand talking points and a relentless desire to stay on message.
And, it’s hard not to agree with Orwell’s famously bleak view of political language that it is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
These are issues worth pondering as we commemorate the 150th Anniversary of one of the most famous speeches of all time (and, I do literally mean all time) – the Gettysburg Address.
And on this 150th anniversary it is worth not only recalling Lincoln’s words but having a re-read of Gary Wills’ brilliant deconstruction of the speech, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.
Wills’ book is an incisive study of the power of oratory. He deftly places Lincoln’s short speech in its time and place whilst making clear that what Lincoln was doing was harking back to an ancient custom.
Lincoln at Gettysburg is a triumph of explication. Examining the Ancient Greek funeral tradition of which the Gettysburg commemoration was clearly redolent to illustrate how Lincoln was a master of the arts of pure rhetoric.
Indeed, as has often been noted Lincoln’s speech was not at the time “the official address” at Gettysburg – that was to be delivered in a lengthy two hour oration by Edward Everett. As Wills says “Lincoln’s contribution, labeled ‘remarks” was intended to make the dedication formal (somewhat like ribbon-cutting at modern openings). This makes the Gettysburg Address the most famous ribbon cutting of all time
More importantly Wills forcefully argues the point that Lincoln used his short speech to prove he was a master of the art of realpolitik as well. This assessment of Lincoln as a master politician not just a secular saint is widely accepted nowadays but it was much less so when Wills first published 21 years ago.
The major thesis of Wills’ book is that Lincoln deliberately used a commemoration of war dead to hammer home a wider political point.
Thus, while the battle of Gettysburg itself holds a resonant place in the American mind, there is a reason that Lincoln’s speech holds a place of even greater reverence.
Lincoln’s address defined how Americans viewed themselves, their nation and their polity in a whole new light. To use a modern political term, Lincoln “reframed” the meaning of the constitution and the declaration of independence. At Gettysburg he “reframed” what it meant to be American.
That was his political genius.
Both Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg and Wills’ book remind us just how powerful words can be when harnessed by a superb orator to a noble cause.
If only Wills’ conclusion that “all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address” were still true.
But before one gets too down, before one is forced back into the cesspit of sound bites, clichés and verbal evasions of modern life, let’s celebrate the art of the great speech, the power of rhetoric not only to move hearts but to move nations …
“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.” – Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863