By Tim Hayes

On this Independence Day, I’m thinking of the incredibly powerful and elegant words of the Declaration of Independence, naturally.  But I’m also thinking of a document that I believe completed and elevated the thoughts of the Declaration as well as the Constitution – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  To my mind, the perfect American speech.

Only two minutes in length, and delivered on November 19, 1863, four months after the monumental battle had been fought, President Abraham Lincoln crystallized for eternity the essence of all things American.  Stripped down to its essence for a modern audience, here are Lincoln’s main points:

This nation began with high ideals – perhaps too high – and we’re at war to see if those ideals can survive.  A tremendous number of men died on this land over those ideals, and it’s up to us to make sure that sacrifice wasn’t wasted.  If we can do that, this nation is sure to pass this greatest of tests.

That’s the TV Guide summary version, but how much more beautifully those thoughts were phrased by this lanky lawyer, this frustrated writer, this bearded genius in a stovepipe hat.  “…We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground…”  “…From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…” “…That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” “…That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth…”

It is said that the Founding Fathers’ bold proclamation in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” carried a shadow cast by the taint of slavery.  Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, made his own bold proclamation at Gettysburg of “a new birth of freedom,” framing the War Between the States as the fight for freedom for all Americans and completing the noble cause begun by Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Washington, and all who fought for independence.

Lincoln was preceded at the podium during the cemetery dedication ceremony by Edward Everett, a noted orator of the day.  Everett spoke for two punishing hours; the President for two immortal minutes.  Everett told Lincoln later, “My speech will soon be forgotten; yours never will be.  How gladly I would exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines.”

Indeed, of the entire Gettysburg Address, I can only find one phrase that does not ring true or inspiring.  Lincoln said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here…”  How wrong he was.  For in encapsulating the true and fulfilled spirit of this nation – one with liberty and justice for all, regardless of race or religion or any other quantifier – Lincoln’s masterpiece of speechwriting became the perfect American speech. 

Copyright 2009 Tim Hayes Consulting