May 28, 2007
Memorial Day, 2007
Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, the governor of Pennsylvania appointed Judge David Willis to organize efforts to clear the battlefield and bury the dead.
As the many burials neared completion in September, Judge Willis prepared for the cemetery's dedication ceremony scheduled for November. Given the massive scale of destruction wrought at Gettysburg (over 51,000 killed or injured in three days) and the herculean effort to inter the dead in a timely fashion, the judge felt that the ceremony should be commensurate. He decided that on November 19, the new cemetery at Gettysburg would be consecrated with an elaborate speech delivered by America's most renowned orator -- Edward Everett.
Over the next six weeks, Everett set about composing one of his trademark two-hour speeches. As public orations were the rock concerts of the day, people would no doubt flock to Gettysburg to listen to the eloquence of the most famous orator of all.
Only 17 days before the big event, Judge Willis may have thought it was a bit tacky not to invite the president of the United States to attend the ceremony and, if he chose, to briefly address the crowd after Everett's performance. In his November 2 invitation to Lincoln, the judge wrote:
These Grounds will be Consecrated and set apart to this Sacred purpose, by appropriate Ceremonies, on Thursday, the 19th instant. Hon Edward Everett will deliver the Oration.
I am authorized by the Governors of the different States to invite you to be present, and participate in these Ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive.
It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.
Translation: "If you're going to speak, Mr. President, keep it short."
It's doubtful Lincoln viewed this last-minute invitation as a slight because he accepted it.
On November 19, over 15,000 people assembled at Gettysburg to hear Edward Everett's grand oration; he didn't disappoint. Everett's two-hour performance left the audience mesmerized. Lincoln then rose to deliver his speech. Consisting of just three paragraphs, the president's "remarks" were "few" indeed. When he finished, the audience gave little, if any, response.
Legend has it that the president regarded the crowd's silence as an indication that his speech flopped. I doubt that. Lincoln was a shrewd political operative and was no stranger to the soapbox. I suspect that he knew Everett would drone on for an hour or two, and that his speech would, by its brevity, stand in stark contrast and command much more attention. So, most likely, the audience's muted reaction was really stunned silence. And in days after the dedication ceremony, Lincoln wrote several copies of what would become known to history as The Gettysburg Address; if the president truly believed his speech was a failure, he would not have taken the time and effort to make handwritten copies for posterity.
In his speech that day, Lincoln not only pays tribute to those Americans who lost their lives defending their fellow citizens' liberty, he also charges us -- the citizens who survive -- to honor our war dead by pressing on to victory in the cause for which they died. The genius of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that its message transcends time.
On this Memorial Day, as the United States fights another protracted war to preserve freedom, Abraham Lincoln speaks to us again and his "few appropriate remarks" of 144 years ago ring anew:
. . . 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.
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