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by William H. Benson

November 22, 2000

     At the dedication of the cemetery at Gettyburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, the featured oration was delivered by Edward Everett, the prominent orator, and following him were the dedicatory remarks given by the President of the United State–Abraham Lincoln.  Read slowly, he took three minutes, even though the crowd’s applause interrupted him five times.

     What had happened at Gettysburg on those three hot days the previous July was so ugly and so emotionally overwhelming that Americans seemed to have turned vicious upon themselves.  What could Lincoln say that could even begin to diminish the damage done four months before?

     And yet, as Gary Wills, the historian pointed out, “It would have been hard to predict that Gettysburg, out of all this muddle, these missed chances, all the senseless deaths, would become a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals.  Abraham Lincoln transformed the ugly reality into something rich and strange–and he did it with 272 words.  The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration.”

     Lincoln was a student of the word.  He loved playing with words and even enjoyed working with grammar.  In his verbal workshop he tinkered with words and sentence construction.  He did not just say, “I close,” as Seward, his speech writer suggested.  Instead, he said, “I am loth to close.”  Each sentence his speechwriters would hand him, he would rework.

      As a result, Lincoln’s words acquired a flexibility of structure, a rhythmic pacing, a variation in length of words and phrases and clauses and sentences that yielded to what he wanted–his own meaning.  With a kind of verbal athleticism he remained partial to grammatical inversion throughout his life.  In his Second Inaugural Address, he did not say, “We fondly hope and fervently pray.”, but instead “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray.”    

     He read and studied Hugh Blair’s work on ancient rhetoric.  Blair wrote, “Thought and language act and react upon each other mutually, . . . and he that is learning to arrange his sentences with accuracy and order is learning, at the same time, to think with accuracy and order.”

Gary Wills observes that this, surely, is the secret of Lincoln’s eloquence.  He not only read aloud, to think his way into sounds, but wrote as a way of ordering his thought.

     In the Gettysburg Address Lincoln interlocks his sentences with a hook-and-eye method to join the speech’s parts.  He uses conceived twice, dedicated six times, and consecrated twice.  Then, he matches who struggled here with who fought here, and then he pairs up these honored dead with these dead.  Three times he writes nationField and battle-field are linked.  In other words, each paragraph is bound to the preceding and the following by some repetitive word or clause, except the first and last (because they cannot).

     Examining his meaning, Lincoln appealed back to the Declaration of Independence and to Jefferson’s words “that all men are created equal.” and gave that document and its words the pre-eminent position in American ideals.  Not everyone at the time agreed.  Afterwords, the Chicago Times pointed out the letter of the Constitution to Lincoln–noting that it was the legal document governing the nation and it did not refer to equality and, in fact, even tolerated slavery.

     If Lincoln had talent, it was to block out all the tragedy that life could throw his way and cut to intellectual truth.  He dealt daily with his wife’s mental instability, an issue on which he was not in denial.  He surrendered hourly to the pain of the tragic passing of his young son Willie.  He heard the arguments of the Southern states who had created their own nation, in part, because he had been elected President.  All this he blocked out, spent time with ink and paper working with words, and in so doing recast the great conflict into something bright and hopeful–“that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom.”

     Ever since the Gettysburg Address, the Civil War is to most Americans what Lincoln wanted it to mean–a fight for people to govern themselves and for greater human equality.  His vision of what the war meant became the official version, whether or not it really was the true version.  His words had to complete the work of the guns.