Chief Justice William Rhenquist
Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania Ceremonies- November 19, 1988
Thank you very much Congressman Goodling, Governor Casey, distinguished platform guests. It is a great pleasure to be with you on the 125th Anniversary of the delivery of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and what a treat it is to hear that address read again. In these days of thirty second sound bites, probably only a small part of this magnificent oration would have made the evening news, but that is surely a reflection on our times and not on Lincoln’s times. This occasion seems to be remarkable in a particular way. We commemorate today after all, not the Battle of Gettysburg which took place in July of 1863, but a very short address delivered a few months later in dedication of a burial ground for those who had died in that battle. There have been outstanding orations given throughout the history of our country: Washington’s farewell address, Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses, Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, but I know of no effort to commemorate them in this way. There have been dedication speeches made for public monuments, monuments probably better known nationally than the Gettysburg Military Cemetery. Daniel Webster delivered a dedication address for the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston. President James Polk delivered a speech dedicating the Washington Monument during his administration. Neither of these is commemorated the way the Gettysburg Address is. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly the excellence of the Gettysburg Address and part of it I am sure is due to the diligent efforts of those who have taken responsibility for this program at Gettysburg over the years. But because it is so evidently a speech and not a battle that we are commemorating today, I wish to talk about Lincoln not as a stateman, not as a military strategist, but as a speaker and user of the English language. As many of you know, Lincoln was invited only to make a few remarks. It was Edward Everett who made the main oration here and in the tradition of the times he spoke for about two hours. Lincoln spoke for two or three minutes, yet Everett’s oration is lost, forgotten and Lincoln’s will live forever. From contemporary descriptions of Lincoln, he is not what one would think of as a great speaker. His voice was high pitched, and his tall, lanky appearance gave an impression of awkwardness just as James Getty has so well captured today. But Lincoln was a master of the English language. Joseph Story, one of the great justices of the Supreme Court in the 19th century once said that in law the power of clear statement is everything. Lincoln had that power, but he had a great deal more. He was not just articulate, he was able to convey ideas in simple terms and yet with force and often with passion. Three-quarters of a century ago a prominent English statesman, Lord Carson, delivered a lecture on modern English eloquence at Cambridge University in England. Perhaps to the surprise of his listeners he said that of the three greatest passages of English eloquence, two were those of Abraham Lincoln. His choices were the Gettysburg Address, and a portion of the second inaugural address. After quoting him in this speech, Carson said “I quote them here because they seem to me to represent better than any explanation or any definition could do, that which is not rhetoric or declamation nor even sermonizing, but the purest goal of human eloquence, nay of eloquence almost divine.” Lincoln’s masterful use of the English language seems remarkable because he had very little education. He said that he went to school little by little having had a total of about twelve months of schoolhouse instruction. In this he was probably not much different than other children being raised on the frontier in Indiana and Illinois in those days. But what was different about Lincoln was his indomitable determination to educate himself. At the age of 23 we find him intensively studying an advanced book on grammar. No more 23 year olds did that in his day than do it today. I think Lincoln’s ability as a master of English prose may be better realized if we moved on from the Gettysburg Address to a few passages from his other speeches. In June 1858 Lincoln spoke at the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois. He spoke on a subject that was on people’s minds throughout the country; the demand of southern salver holders to be permitted to bring the institution of slavery into the territories which were just being opened for settlement in the west.
Here is what he said. “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall, but do expect that it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public minds shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, north as well as south”.
Talk about the power of clear statement. Here we have in few sentences a political dilemma expressed in eloquent but simple language and expressed in such a way that his hearers could have little doubt as to which way the dilemma ought to be resolved. Lincoln made other speeches between 1858 and 1860 which brought him to national prominence. He received the Republican nomination for president in 1860 defeating better known rivals such as William Henry Seward and Salmon Chase. As he was leaving Springfield for Washington in February 1861 after having been elected by a minority of the popular vote, he gave very brief remarks to the citizens of Springfield and here it is in its entirety.
“My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Diving Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope you in your prayers will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Washington at that time was awash in Confederate sympathy. Lincoln had to be spirited into the town by route different from his party. His first task upon arriving there was to compose his first inaugural address, and he exchanged drafts with Seward who was his first choice to Secretary of State, and if you want to see the difference between a fine speaker and a truly superb speaker, check out some time Seward’s proposed draft of the final two paragraphs of the first inaugural with what Lincoln finally gave. Here is how Lincoln concluded that speech with his appeal to the south:
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressor. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it. I am loath to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection, the mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, over all this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Four years after the agony of the Civil War, Lincoln was once again re-elected president and it was time to write his second inaugural address, a much harder one this time. Some of the Republicans, some of the people who had been on the winning side for the Civil War wanted a Carthaginian peace with the south, but Lincoln was made of more magnanimous stuff. Here is how he concluded his second inaugural:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nations’ wounds; to care of him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Six weeks later Lincoln was dead of an assassin’s bullet and as his friends and cabinet gathered around him as he was dying the next morning, word was brought that Lincoln had just died. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton said “Now he belongs to the ages.”
I hope you may agree with me that Abraham Lincoln belongs not only to the ages of statesmanship but to the ages of English literature.
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