It’s ironic that today we celebrate the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, because the entire conceit of Lincoln’s short, 271-word address was that people would little note nor remember what he was saying. What counted to Lincoln was what the soldiers had done.
The full measure of their sacrifice, for freedom, to preserve the Union, was beyond anyone’s ability to add or subtract. The Stoics would have agreed with that sentiment. It’s a waste of time to talk about what a good man is like, Marcus Aurelius said, we just have to be one. So what, he asked, if people remember things you said while you were alive?
We do remember what Lincoln said at Gettysburg. Because what he did in that short address was lay out—perhaps better than any other person—the kind of ideals we are trying to live up to and serve. He defined and celebrated heroism for us with such beauty that you can’t help but memorize it.
We forget the 13,000 words—the two hours—that the speaker before him spent bloviating. What we remember is Lincoln’s boiled-down poetry. Because that poetry was calling us to something higher. The Gettysburg Address is a call to pick up the unfinished work of those noble soldiers who died so that other men could be free, so that all men could—someday, eventually—be treated equally. It was a consecration of those virtues of courage and moderation and justice and wisdom.
Marcus Aurelius believed there was nothing more inspiring than to see virtue embodied in the people around us. On this day, 157 years ago, Lincoln managed to, in a few short minutes, enshrine virtue in a speech that echoes in eternity.
Does it matter more than the true sacrifices of the soldiers buried in the field where he spoke? No. But it was a fitting tribute that we can continue to ring out today.
A great example of Speech Craft.