by Ron Hayes
Seven days ago, on November 19th, a quiet anniversary came and went, overlooked by most of us ignorant of the significance of the date, focused as we are on turkeys and garlands, the snows of Buffalo, travel plans, and the ever-increasing over-commercialization of the holidays. If you’re like me, you didn’t know that one hundred and fifty one years and seven days ago, an embattled American President took the stage in a small Pennsylvania town and delivered the most powerful expression of thanks this nation—perhaps any nation—has ever known: The Gettysburg Address.
Of course, so much has already been written about the Gettysburg Address that adding to it here runs the risk of piling on, regurgitating redundancies overwrought by students, historians, and politicians. Or worse, it devolves into an exercise in tedium: analysis for its own sake, apropos of nothing.
Rather than run either of those risks, I wish simply to point out the biggest and best lesson we can learn from the Gettysburg Address: the blessings of brevity. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge defines it, poetry is “the right words in the right order.” The Gettysburg Address, by that measure (among many others), is undeniably poetic, but the true power of Lincoln’s most famous speech inherently lies in its concision. True, he begins his remarks with a flourish bordering on the florid, but, considering the 13,000 word oration Edward Everett, the preceding speaker, had just delivered (a copy of which Lincoln had been given beforehand, by the way), I’m willing to concede “four score and seven” as a wholly appropriate strategy for rhetorical and oratorical transition. In short, the Gettysburg Address, at 151 years old, holds up as well now as any poem from any poet who’s ever lived. It is remarkable.
As we at 5Writers take this month to reflect on the role of gratitude in our writing, my day job intervenes. The Social Studies teacher in me intersects with my writer self, and I find I’m taken with the notion that few of us actually realize that the Gettysburg Address was prepared and delivered several months after the July 1863 battle as opposed to just a few days or weeks as I’d supposed for most of my life. Unlikely no coincidence, in the same month that he gave the world the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln formalized for his country our annual holiday of Thanksgiving.
Perhaps history teachers like me need to do a better job of connecting these events. Perhaps the somber sentiments that so iconically wrought the Gettysburg Address would go far in reining in our unfortunate focus on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. Imagine what a tradition it might have been (still might be?) if, instead of a prayer before digging into turkey, or in addition to the national anthem that precedes the day’s cavalcade of football, we stopped for a moment to remember:
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 battle-field 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 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.
Just imagine if we could tie the elegant enormity of these words to our annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations. Just imagine if more of us reflected on the Gettysburg Address and celebrated it as much as we venerate our veterans as heroes.
Wait a minute–don’t imagine it. DO it. It takes two minutes. We all proclaim a collective disdain for the over-commercialization that Thanksgiving has come to represent, right? So let’s do something about it. Let’s take it back from the retailers and overeager carolers. I challenge you to make the feeling and the meaning behind Lincoln’s words an annual part of your Thanksgiving. Post the entire text of the Gettysburg Address on your Facebook wall. Tweet it, Instagram it, Snapchat it. Read it before you tuck in to turkey or after you polish off your pumpkin pie. Make these two minutes the new American Prayer. Elevate our national awareness. Celebrate what makes us Americans and the ideas that contribute to the American ideal. In the meantime,
Thank you, Mr. President. Happy Thanksgiving all.