Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago. Contrary to popular belief, he did not write it on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. In fact, it is not known where he wrote the speech, but he did continue to edit it in the bedroom of the house where he stayed the night before the battlefield was dedicated as the first national military cemetery.
Before Lincoln spoke, he was preceded by a former president of Harvard, Edward Everett, who droned on for two hours and eight minutes. Lincoln, who had been added as a speaker almost as an afterthought, rose to the podium and began. He delivered his speech in less than three minutes.
Ronald C. White, Jr., a visiting professor of history at UCLA and a fellow at the Huntington Library, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (Nov. 17, 2013) explicating why Lincoln’s brief speech is one for the ages. Lincoln did not need two hours to illustrate the greater significance of the cemetery dedication, essentially, as White writes, “no longer defending an old Union but proclaiming a new one.”
The next day the former president of Harvard stated, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the dedication in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
White’s point in closely examining Lincoln’s brief speech is that it should serve as a beacon for today’s writers, both professional and casual. Do not write to impress. Use short words. The Gettysburg Address is only 272 words and, of those, 204 are of one syllable. White encourages his readers to read the Address slowly, as Lincoln delivered it slowly. “Think about the power of the words. Words fiercely mattered to Abraham Lincoln. They ought to matter to us.”
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 battlefield 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 here 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.