Bench Memos

Lincoln at Gettysburg

The new issue of National Affairs (whose founding editor is my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague, and Corner contributor, Yuval Levin) features a wonderfully insightful essay by Diana Schaub on the Gettysburg Address. Here’s a sample passage:

The first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address consists of only one sentence, but it’s a doozy. It describes the past, the nation’s beginnings. What Lincoln called “the birthday of the United States of America” in the serenade speech has been transformed into a sophisticated, poetic metaphor that refers to three distinct moments: conception, birth, and baptism. The past that Lincoln refers to is a past that stretches back before living memory. “Four score and seven years ago” exceeds the individual’s allotment of “three score and ten,” the Biblical phrase for the natural span of a human life. Lincoln’s decision to formulate the date in this way accentuates the fact that the founding is now beyond anyone’s direct experience.

By the way, the “serenade speech” that Schaub refers to in that passage was the “impromptu speech that Lincoln gave on July 7th, right after the [Gettysburg] victory, when residents of the District of Columbia assembled outside the White House to serenade him.” As Schaub points out, in that serenade speech Lincoln “prefigures points he will make at Gettysburg” but “in very different language.” Here, as one stark example, is how it started out: “How long ago is it?—eighty odd years ….”

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