Excerpted with permission from Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith (Basic Books, $26.99). Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.
THE SIXTEENTH PRESIDENT OF the United States of America did not, as you might imagine, speak in a rich chocolaty baritone. He had a high, squeaky voice and a strong Kentucky accent. Nor—coming from a humble background—could he automatically be expected to have a confident grasp of classical rhetoric. That would have mattered. We may think of the American Revolution as a bold and unprecedented new beginning, the casting off of a European yoke, but it would be hard to overstate quite how deeply immersed in the traditions of classical rhetoric the framers of the US Constitution and their inheritors were. Every town in Massachusetts had a grammar school, and from the age of eight, pupils there would be taught the classics from eight in the morning until dark fell.
But as the largely self-educated son of a Kentucky farmer, he wasn’t able to tap into the knowingly arcane by-ways of classical history with which his predecessors were able to signal their patrician credentials. Lincoln was a clever, gangly, pugnacious, provincial lawyer.
His special distinction as a speaker was not to deliver the full-bore, self-consciously Greco-Roman ornamentation of his predecessors. It was to tame those techniques—to yoke classical figures to a crisply vernacular style, and to offset his intermittent stylistic flourishes with a folksy swoop down to a register where he all but claps the individual audience member on the shoulder.
The widely agreed pinnacle of Lincoln’s rhetorical achievement was the speech now known as the “Gettysburg Address”— delivered on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the graveyard for the Union dead after the battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War.
As any student of American history ought to know, though, Lincoln did not deliver the official Gettysburg address. The honor of that fell to Edward Everett, a distinguished classicist then regarded as one of the greatest orators America had ever seen—now, all but forgotten.
Lincoln was sixth on the bill—making “Dedicatory Remarks” after music from Birgfield’s Band and the Marine Band, a prayer, a hymn, and the main speaker. Lincoln, in other words, was the supporting act.
It’s a pretty good testament to the transformative power of rhetoric that Gettysburg remains so hallowed in the annals of American history.
Speech-making is a practical as well as a spiritual affair. Everett spoke for over two hours—a rolling classical speech that evoked Pericles’s funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War, and likened the dead of Gettysburg to the fallen soldiers at Marathon while running back over the events of the battle itself in minute detail.
Lincoln—whose hat was still circled by a black mourning band in honor of his dead son—spoke for a couple of minutes, and delivered 250-odd words. But those “few appropriate remarks”—delivered to an audience of between 10,000 and 20,000 people— remain probably the single most influential piece of rhetoric in American history.
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 cannot dedicate... we cannot consecrate... we cannot 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.
The president himself didn’t treat the occasion as off-handedly as posterity has sometimes had it.
As Gary Wills has argued, Lincoln was, by habit, a slow and careful polisher of his speeches. He was also an accomplished actor, who loved to declaim Shakespeare aloud. He thought about delivery as well as about composition. The care with which he was thinking about it in advance is evidenced by the fact that, a few days before, he asked the man who landscaped the cemetery to bring him the plans, so he could familiarize himself with the layout of where he’d be speaking.
The speech, like the myth of its offhandedness, is one thing that appears another. It is an absolute masterpiece of the plain style. It is fiercely well patterned in almost every phrase— “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” its most resonant coinage, manages to be tricolonic, zeugmatic, and epistrophic all at the same time—yet sounds clear as day.
The particulars of the battle and the politics behind it are barely alluded to—there’s no mention of the Union or of Gettysburg; no honoring of the particular dead; there are no proper nouns, and no descriptive adjectives. And look at the modest, talky straightforwardness of phrases like, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Yet underneath it is a web of muscle. Sentence is bound to sentence with repeated words—“conceive,” “dedicate,” “consecrate”— and with the antitheses of “we” and “they,” “living” and “dead.” Its shape is guided by the image of birth, death, and rebirth: the birth of a nation, the death of its soldiers, and the “new birth” of liberty that comes out of it.
That speech turned an equivocal, a provisional victory on the field of battle—thanks to the alchemic power of Lincoln’s words—into a turning point in the history of American liberty.
Or did it? Readers of The Times in London were told that what was otherwise an “imposing ceremony” was “rendered ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”
You cannot, as even the victors at Gettysburg discovered, win them all.
An edited version of a chapter from Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, by Sam Leith, extracted with permission. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.