150 Years Later, Can We Still Hear Lincoln’s Voice?
Most of us used to imagine the voice of Abraham Lincoln, who spoke at Gettysburg seven score and ten years ago today, as something deep, rugged and resonant. If we had to cast an actor to read his words, we might think of Gregory Peck or Charlton Heston.
But Lincoln’s voice emerged from a strangely elongated and narrow-chested body, and its sound reflected its earthly confines. Said Honest Abe’s longtime law partner, William Herndon: “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.” (It grew more melodious as he warmed up.) Nearly everyone who commented on Lincoln’s voice agreed it had a penetrating quality that could carry effortlessly over wide-open spaces — like the battlefield at Gettysburg on that overcast November day in 1863.
Other than those sketchy descriptions, the sound of Lincoln’s voice at Gettysburg has been lost forever. Edison, still in his teens, wouldn’t develop his first recording device until 1877, a dozen years after Lincoln’s death. Of course, we still have Lincoln’s 272 deathless words — memorably somber, gaunt, understated, almost minimalist, filled with bony unpoetic Latinisms like “dedicated,” “consecrated,” “conceived” and “proposition” — a far cry from Churchill’s sinewy Anglo-Saxon “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
So why do we still venerate a two-minute, 150-year-old speech delivered at the dedication of a military cemetery?
1. Because we still venerate Lincoln, and we haven’t had many leaders in our lifetime who deserve our veneration.
2. Because (let’s face it) the address was short and relatively easy to memorize for school assignments. By now it’s part of our mental furniture. Until he entered the White House, Lincoln was better known for rambling, passionate speeches that would hold his listeners spellbound for two or three hours at a stretch.
3. Because its bald declarative sentences, devoid of fussy ornament, paid tribute to “these honored dead” more movingly than florid poetics and Classical references could have done. (Just ask Edward Everett, the featured speaker of the day.) The Gettysburg Address marked a sharp departure from the public oratory of its time.
4. Because (perhaps most important of all) it contained a concise, visionary mission statement for the American experiment in democracy: a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” based on the Jeffersonian assumption that “all men are created equal.” For this mission thousands of Union soldiers had sacrificed life and limb, and it was “rather for us” to carry on the work of fighting for the survival of that government.
Today Lincoln’s vision is under assault, and we’re battling for the soul of our nation. Government of the people, by the people, for the people? Last time I looked, it was government of the well-connected, by the well-connected, for the well-connected. Our elected representatives scurry shamelessly to represent the deep-pocketed special interests that fund their re-election campaigns. They reward those special interests with subsidies, tax breaks and favorable legislation. And of course, they reward themselves with generous health insurance plans and lifelong pensions.
Do they reward the American middle class? Not so much. Although we still like to profess that all men are created equal, apparently some of us are, as Orwell noted, “more equal than others.”
Worse yet, the deep-pocketed ones have cleverly recruited legions of ordinary, hardworking, put-upon Americans to their ranks. They’ve pitted race against race, middle class against the poor, gun owners against gun alarmists, believers against non-believers. Through their media outlets, they’ve instilled a burning hatred of democratic government in the souls of the very people who stand to benefit from it.
Lincoln’s voice, clear and penetrating in his time, seems to be fading away in ours. He would be profoundly saddened to see his country split into two mutually loathing, seemingly irreconcilable factions — 150 years after we fought a terrible war to reunite us.
We need to catch our breath for a moment and see how we’ve been edging toward the precipice of another civil war — if not a war fought with cannons and shells, then one fought with accusations and misunderstandings and the billowing rhetoric of contempt. We need to stop labeling ourselves and each other as conservative or progressive, black or white, Anglo or Latino, rich or poor, gay or straight, Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist.
If we make our homes in the United States, we’re Americans. Period. As Americans, we owe it to ourselves, our dead veterans, and the memory of Abraham Lincoln to fight for government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” That means us. It means working together as Americans. It means restoring, preferably by constitutional means, a government that genuinely represents the will of the electorate (i.e., us).
Such a noble struggle requires dedication, consecration and all those other bony Latin-derived words that rang so true at Gettysburg 150 years ago. Lincoln’s ideal government is ours to win or lose together. God help us if we allow it to perish from the earth.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.