Friday, November 21, 2014

Gettysburg Address: Abraham Lincoln Rebukes Us From The Grave

By Banji Ojewale
Wednesday November 19, 2014 marked the 151st  anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln, the President of the US at the time of the American Civil War in the 19th Century. Lincoln delivered the speech to commemorate the gruesome Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and to dedicate a national cemetery for slain soldiers.

*Abraham Lincoln: 16th President of 
the United States  (pix:planetfigure) 

It was a brief oration that lasted only a few minutes. The Lincoln presentation 272 words – appeared to pale next to that of a well known national orator Professor Edward Everett whose speech, running into nearly two hours, came ahead of the president’s.
The crowd gave Lincoln what an observer described as a “perfunctory applause”. It was a euphemism for unstated rejection of the speech! But the professional Everett instantly noticed the landing of a new benchmark for oratorical discipline and ingenuity. “My speech will soon be forgotten,”  he told Lincoln. “Yours will never be. How gladly would I exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines”.

It has turned out prophetically true. For through the ages down to our day what started as a mere community speech has since broken the barriers of colour and the culture language to become a timeless piece of prose better appreciated for its nobility and poetry.
More awe is summoned when we realize that Lincoln gave the address from a grieving soul. There was the stark reality of sorrow inflicted by war. And in this case the Battle of Gettysburg was recorded to have been one of the bloodiest of the civil war.
7000 were killed and 44000 were wounded or missing. Historians claim that the Gettysburg battle was the turning point  indeed of the war.

Somehow Lincoln, a man forged out of a cauldron of defeats, disappointments and dejection, drew appropriate lessons from the desolation around him. He recognised for instance that man can only manage calamity (or what seems so) not by pandering to it or reproducing more visions of such dreary conditions.
It wasn’t a time for a long sermonizing speech, nor was it a moment to shun talk altogether. 


He needed to face  the locals and comfort the bereaved families of Gettysburg and turn individual and collective losses into first, a national hope and then a universal legacy.
The Gettysburg Address achieved precisely these. How did Lincoln succeed? The literary technique, gained from diligent study and history, performed the main magic. He avoided overly lugubrious epithets. He never interjected the speech with any personal connections. Where he came to that point, the speaker adopted the use of the majestic yet humble “we”, “us” or “our”.

He won the hearts of the mourners and the nation when he cautioned that although he and the others had gathered to honour the dead. “ In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.”  Lincoln added: “ 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, or 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 more to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Great, noble thoughts and vision captured in equally sublime prose! Lincoln ended the day a fulfilled man: he had used powerful language and personal discipline to soothe the souls of the bruised, disconsolate citizens.

He had also proved that when a nation is passing though dreary moments, it could be succoured by leaders that take time to make statements that transform the situation into hopeful vision.

Only leaders and statesmen of Spartan dispositions unencumbered by a craving for material wealth, inordinate power and women-mongering would possess the rigour and discipline and conviction so amply displayed in the Gettysburg Address.

Most of what we have in Nigeria has come down as a caricature of the soul of Gettysburg chiefly because our speechmakers are largely the antitheses of Abraham Lincoln. They conduct no studious research ahead of the speeches. They don’t reach back into history to dredge up nuggets of wisdom.

Current occupants of the White House: President 
Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle

They don’t make issues of speeches; they personalize them instead. And most tragically, they are rooted only in today, not looking beyond the present. They have a disdain for a reading lifestyle.

Two leaders in our age have admitted their contempt for reading.
So why won’t we be blessed with leadership with philistine attitudes whose speeches, consisting of  chains of kilometer-long constructions, can’t inspire us to transcendent hope? Why won’t we have speeches better admitted as tutorials for nursing mothers who want to send their infants to sleep? When we have leaders who maintain harems in almost every constituency where they exercise so –termed legislative oversight functions, we can’t but produce a president who says it is unproductive to turn out sociology graduates.

In such a society, it is patriotic to turn deaf ears to pleas that public office holders bow before the Freedom of Information Bill. In this clime it is bliss to avoid the discipline of Gettysburg.
*Ojewale, a journalist at Onibuku, Ota, Ogun State, is a contributor to SCRUPLES. He could be reached with:

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