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"It takes me about three weeks to write an impromptu speech" - Mark Twain

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 6

Abraham Lincoln was the most skillful writer of his age. But he wasn't the most skillful speaker. Believe it or not, Abraham Lincoln had the same fears most of us have about speaking in public.

As a lawyer, he memorized his court arguments ahead of time, and he practiced out loud, so loud that once his wife threw him out of the house. Even though he became famous debating with Stephen Douglas, for Lincoln, debating was different than direct public speaking. He did it, but he didn't like it.

After he was elected President, he was often called on to speak. Unless he had prepared and practiced in advance, he usually declined. The night of the surrender at Appomattox he appeared at the White House window to cheering throngs and military bands. He was asked to make a speech. But he hadn't prepared a statement in advance and feared the "right" words would fail him on such an important occasion. He avoided a speech by asking the band to play Dixie instead.

So, how could someone like this give the Gettysburg Address? Today it stands as the best and most perfectly structured speech ever given. But that wasn't what Lincoln thought in 1863. In fact, everything was against Lincoln giving even an average speech that November day.

One thing against him was the grim subject. He was there to dedicate a cemetery. It was four months after the battle, and not all the bodies had been properly buried yet. The smell of death still hung in the air. To say nothing of the smells of 15,000 people who came out for the daylong dedication.

Another thing against him giving a successful speech was that he was the last speaker of the afternoon. The speaker before him talked for two full hours. The crowd was growing impatient and tired.

And the last count against him, Lincoln had a high-pitched voice with a Mid-western twang that people in the East just hated to hear.

That's the scene the day Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. You have this tall, gangly, squeaky-voiced man wearing a wrinkled black suit. His pants were always too short, hanging high above his ankles. The people have been there for hours and hours, and they are undoubtedly bored, tired, and cranky. Of the thousands who came, only a few hundred would even be able to see him. Less than that would be able to hear him.

But the success of the Gettysburg Address didn't depend on a smooth delivery, or perfect surroundings, or an admiring audience. It really didn't matter HOW he gave the Address. It was WHAT he said. The words he used captured the sentiments of the people. That's what made the Gettysburg Address a historic event.

He started out with what most Americans have memorized:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation."

His audience understood what he meant by this. Our country was young enough in 1863 that most adults heard the stories or even had met people who fought in the Revolution. Lincoln is reminding them of these past heroes and comparing them with those they came to Gettysburg to honor. 

He continues:

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

The outcome of the Civil War may make the survival of the first and only democracy on earth doubtful.

He ends with this hope:

"these dead shall not have died in vain; the nation shall . have a new birth of freedom; and . government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Lincoln wanted the American people to understand it was their shared responsibility to preserve the Union and to protect and preserve our democratic government to serve as an example of freedom for the rest of the world.

Lincoln's voice was squeaky and weak, and his audience was bored and tired. But it didn't matter how he delivered his speech. What mattered were the WORDS he chose and WHAT he said.

In all Lincoln's writings, he chose his words very carefully. For the Gettysburg Address, he wanted his words to make our nation whole again. That's why, in spite of his prediction, the world still notes what Lincoln said there, and the world still remembers what Lincoln did there at Gettysburg.