The extraordinary thing about the Gettysburg Address, which was given 150 years ago on Tuesday, is that people still venerate it as they do. It is, on one level, a pretty standard piece of wartime rhetoric, polarising the issues and claiming that the stakes are universal, eternal and profound. Churchill did the same sort of thing with his 1941 speeches — pre-empting the judgement of history by arguing that this would be our finest hour, and that the stakes were sunlit uplands versus a new dark age. But of course both Lincoln in 1863 and Churchill in 1941 really were speaking at a moment in history when if certain things had happened differently, the consequences may have been utterly profound. In both cases, had those leaders not been on the winning side, and helped shape the nature of the victory, we would undoubtedly now be living in a different world. Churchill, a great admirer of Lincoln and a student of American history, wrote an article in 1930 imagining what might have happened had Lee won at Gettysburg. At least thoughtful Americans retain the ability to use the speech as a way of critiquing the state of public life and democratic values, as Drew Faust recently did in the Washington Post.
But the fact is that Lincoln said nothing at Gettysburg that he’d not said before, and expressed not a single idea that countless other northerners — editors, preachers, diary writers, politicians, soldiers in their letters home — had not also articulated.
So why did Gettysburg endure?
Because it has a beautiful structure that makes it easy for the reader to inject pace, pause, and crescendo .Because it uses phrases (‘four score and seven’, ‘brought forth, ‘perish from the earth’) that are familiar because they’re biblical; and because it is an extended metaphor about birth, death and resurrection (brought forth, gave their lives, new birth of freedom). It’s both Churchillian rallying cry and funeral ode.It’s cadences and its rhythm are enticing.
It invites performance, doesn’t it?
So, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on November 19, here are five of the greatest recordings:
1. Johnny Cash
2. Lawrence Olivier (from Humphrey Jennings’ Words for Battle — a 1941 propaganda movie. Lincoln comes in at 6.10)
3.Stephen Colbert [a recent classic]
4. Katherine Hepburn (OK this is just her reading the relevant bits from Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, but it includes lines from the Gettysburg Address)
5. Bill Clinton (of course) [Watch his left eye. A bit weird]
Ken Burns has set up a project to get Americans to learn the speech and so many people are recording it at the moment, but since I’m not American I wasn’t sure if Ken would allow me to join in. I am doing a little piece on Night Waves on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday evening, but they didn’t ask me to recite the speech either.
Undaunted, I thought I’d give it a try. Here I am: