Friday, February 11, 2005

Imagining Lincoln

I think one of the things that I find so remarkable about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is that whenever I read it, the goofy caricature images of him fade, and I begin, in my mind’s eye, to see a real man.

Here it is. Maybe you'll agree:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal"

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow, this ground-- The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
That’s just smoking prose. The cadence is so distinct. The words so thoughtfully strung together. It sounds as if he's right here visiting my blog.

If you’ve ever put finger to keyboard (or quill to parchment), you know that creating this kind of eloquence can be as elusive as attaining inner peace.

In his book Style: Toward Grace and Clarity, University of Chicago Emeritus Professor Joseph M. Williams writes about what makes Lincoln’s words so powerful:

Lincoln assigned responsibility to his audience. By consistently topicalizing we to make himself and his audience the agents of the crucial actions, Lincoln made them one with the founding fathers and with the men who fought and died at Gettysburg. By so doing, he tacitly invited his listeners to join their dead fore-fathers and their dead countrymen in making the great sacrifices the living had still to make to preserve the Union.
Williams suggests that had Lincoln shifted the agency away from the people (i.e., the continent witnesses, a great civil war tests, the war creates), he would have "relieved his audience of their responsibility to act, and would thereby have deprived us of one of the great documents in our history."

Williams reminds us that Lincoln’s prose is every bit as rhetorically (and politically) relevant today as it was in November of 1863. No wonder we can picture Abe so well.

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