Today, November 19, is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. It’s a famously short speech and a famously ambiguous one. No one’s quite sure how many words, exactly, Lincoln said at that cemetery in Pennsylvania.
However many he said, they were few enough that they could be hand-written. While many historians dispute the legend that the president finished the speech on the back of an envelope, the idea of spontaneity remains.
The speech is knotted into countless forms of media. We carve the speech out of marble; we emboss it onto metal; we print it in postcards, textbooks, parchment. We interact with its little body of words countless ways before we read it, aloud, as Lincoln did.
President Obama didn’t go to Gettysburg today, which some critics, well, criticized him for. But, this evening, he did release a little, hand-written essay about the address. The speech’s solemn nature, its multiplicity of forms, seemed to demand something more than an electronic press release from him. It demanded hand-writing, which, in a digital age, underlines the sincerity of a message.
In an age of pretty fonts and easy publishing, the image of hand-writing gets about as close to speech as a text can get.
The President’s manuscript is below, followed by my transcription of it.
Whether or not he wrote it (I think it’s written by him), it is a little ode on the nature of language: the famous language of the speech, the commanding language of the law, and the language which makes action possible.
In the evening, when Michelle and the girls have gone to bed, I sometimes walk down the hall to a room Abraham Lincoln used as his office. It contains an original copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s own hand.
I linger on these few words that have helped define our American experiment: "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Through the lines of weariness etched in his face, we know Lincoln grasped, perhaps more than anyone, the burdens required to give those words meaning. He knew that even a self-evident truth was not self executing; that blood drawn by the lash was an affront to our ideals; that blood drawn by the sword was in painful service to those same ideals.
He understood as well that our humble efforts, our individual ambitions, are ultimately not what matter; rather, it is through the accumulated toil and sacrifice of ordinary men and women—those like the soldiers who consecrated that battlefield—that this country is built, and freedom preserved. This quintessentially self made man, fierce in his belief in honest work and the striving spirit at the heart of America, believed that it falls to each generation, collectively, to share in that toil and sacrifice.
Through cold war and world war, through industrial revolution and technological transformation, through movements for civil rights and women’s rights and workers rights and gay rights, we have. At times, social and economic change have strained our union. But Lincoln’s words give us confidence that whatever trials await us, this nation and the freedoms we cherish can, and shall, prevail.
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