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November 19, 2015

The Impact of the Gettysburg Address 152 Years Later

Communication

Jeff Cochran

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November 19, 2015, marks the 152nd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a speech that is regarded as one of the most masterful public addresses in history. Some of the elements of oratory artistry Abraham Lincoln used that day remain relevant to negotiation training and really, any persuasive pursuit, to this day. That fact is a bit ironic since the content of Abraham Lincoln’s speech itself, dismissed the importance, and life expectancy of the words he spoke.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here …” he said, “… but it can never forget what they did here.”

The fact that Lincoln humbly shrugged off the content of a his own message, reducing his own words to simple phonemes that ring through the air for just a split second then disappear into the aether forever points to his rhetorical  techniques. He set the stage with a string of words that explicitly demerited the person who spoke them and pointed the hearts of the audience away from the persona, and toward some other truth. That is not to say that persuasive speaking takes the form of misdirection, although there may be sleight-of-hand involved. As the 20th century French language scholar, Jaques Derrida once wrote, “Speech never gives the thing itself, but a simulacrum that touches us more profoundly than the truth, “strikes” us more effectively.”

Derrida’s use of the verb, “strikes,” directs our attention to the centerpiece of our Gettysburg Address commemoration, which is this. Speech is an act. It’s a thing that a person does. In spite of Lincoln’s own dismissiveness, history certainly remembers both what he did, and said that day. So, let’s talk more about Lincoln’s actions on that day and the legacy they left behind.

The Battle of Gettysburg

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The American civil war saw some of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history. The Battle of Gettysburg, which had taken place months earlier, July 1-3, 1863, was the worst of them. At the end of the three-day conflict, more than between 46,000 and 51,000 servicemen were either killed, wounded, or missing. It was far more bloodshed than the public on either side of the conflict could rationalize.

The price of war in the aftermath weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of the Northern public where a peace movement had been gathering support for some time. Reluctance to continue also crept into minds of the soldiers, and military commanders, as well as President Lincoln. It also weighed on the Confederacy. The Battle of Gettysburg marked a major turning point in the conflict. The Confederacy’s campaign to invade the north in full force had been pushed back. Robert E. Lee’s long-standing reputation for invincibility in battle was permanently dispelled.

Strategically speaking, however, the immediate southern reaction to the battle was that it was a setback, not a disaster and that many of the Confederacy’s military goals had been largely achieved. The sentiment was that Lee won the day on July 1. Confederate troops fought valiantly the following two days, but failed to dislodge the Union Army from strong defensive positions outside the city. And once defeated, the Confederates successfully stood their ground on July 4, and retreated further only after realizing the Union lacked the will to pursue and attack. Ultimately it was a defeat that Lee handled with his usual mastery. The full scope of the events at Gettysburg were not understood to be a turning point until later.

The Battle of Gettysburg had opened up a critical opportunity for Union forces to destroy the Confederate Army once and for all. But, it was an opportunity they had missed when the moment was ripe. According to one historian, President Lincoln complained to Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles stating, “Our army held the war in the hollow if their hand and they would not close it.”

How the Speech Set the Tone for Victory

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Northern enthusiasm dissipated in the months between July and November that year, as workers labored to construct the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, and word spread that Lee’s army had escaped destruction and the war would need to continue. President Lincoln needed an opportunity to muster the Union’s resolve and press the advantage while there was still time.

Reburial of Union soldiers from Gettysburg Battlefield graves to new grave sites at the National Soldier’s Cemetery had begun October 17. President Lincoln had been invited to “formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks,” by David Willis of the committee for the consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The occasion presented Lincoln with the opportunity rededicate public resolve to seeing the war all the way through. Lincoln’s address followed a tiresome speech lasting more than two hours given by the well-known Massachusetts statesman, Edward Everett. Lincoln needed only two minutes to accomplish his goals.  

Multiple historians noted significant parallels between the timing, context, and rhetorical tone Lincoln’s speech, with the speech given by the Athenian politician, Pericles’, recorded by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War. For one, the timing and setting for The Gettysburg Address precisely mirror Pericles’s speech. Public funerals commemorating the sacrifices of fallen soldiers were an established Athenian tradition by the fifth century B.C. And even though it’s uncertain how much influence the History of the Peloponnesian War had on Lincoln, the rhetorical parallels are very plain to see. Lincoln began with an acknowledgment of revered predecessors, with the phrase, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent…”

Like Pericles, Lincoln praised the uniqueness of the State’s commitment to democracy by stating, “..a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…government of the people, by the people, and for the people…” Like Pericles, Lincoln Addresses the heavy emotional burdens carried by speakers on such occasions, “…we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” And ultimately, like Pericles, Lincoln exhorts the survivors to vindicate the dead by emulating their deeds, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the great task remaining before us.”

Lincoln’s Legacy

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Speech is an act, and a powerful one at that. Despite any appeals to humility, great speeches and great speakers like Abraham Lincoln, and like Pericles before him, are always remembered. The Gettysburg Address is regarded as one of the greatest, most concise, yet most influential statements of national purpose on record. In two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence. He equated the Civil War with a struggle for the preservation of the Union that had been rent asunder by the secession of the southern states. At the same time he redefined the war to be more than just a partisan political struggle to preserve the Union and federal authority over states, but also to preserve the very paradigm in which partisan struggles could be moderated by a fair democratic process for generations to come; another parallel to Athenian history. We all know the final outcome. The Union Army pressed the advantage and eventually won the war. And a year-and-a-half after speaking at Gettysburg, Lincoln was assassinated.

Conclusion

We believe that there is always a model for success that can be studied, repurposed, and followed. We also teach that persuasion, whatever, and wherever the context, is far more than just words. Abraham Lincoln’s techniques are as good a model for someone to follow today, as Pericles’s techniques were for Lincoln 152 years ago.

In his eulogy to the slain president, Senator Charles Sumner referred to The Gettysburg Address as a “monumental act,” also noting that Lincoln had been mistaken in his thought that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Rather, Sumner remarked, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”

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