Ever since Abraham Lincoln delivered his stirring Gettysburg Address at that great battlefield in Pennsylvania 150 years ago, people have been parsing it. Almost immediately, Sen. Charles Sumner compared it to great Greek literature, a thought echoed by historian Garry Wills in our time.
But Lincoln’s words weren’t Greek to his audience, and they aren’t Greek to us. As historian Allen Guelzo explained recently, the address is an example of democratic speech, words aimed at his audience that they could easily understand.
The crowd gathered that day would have appreciated that the address was so short -- just 272 words -- especially after it had just listened to a two-hour-long stem-winder from acclaimed speaker Edward Everett.
Lincoln’s brief remarks must have been met with sighs of relief from many with tired ears that day. His genius was he was able to capture ideas and convey them with as few words as possible. And Lincoln was speaking of ideas that his listeners would understand. Lincoln’s message would have been heard by the crowd as a defense of democracy.
Today we all but take democracy for granted. There are democratic governments all around the world. And they, for the most part, work. But in the 1860s, government by the consent of the governed seemed doomed.
Guelzo says it was Otto von Bismarck’s idea that seemed to be on the rise. “Believe me, one cannot lead or bring to prosperity a great nation without the principle of authority—that is, the Monarchy,” the Iron Chancellor wrote to a colleague. Other Europeans rejoiced that the United States were tearing themselves apart in defense of slavery. The failure in the U.S. would prove for all time that democracy was, truly, mob rule.
But, in the battle of Gettysburg, those common people had done something amazing. They had left their farms, families and shops and marched as soldiers. They had defended the high ground, and repulsed Robert E. Lee’s vaunted invaders time and again. They had died in stunning numbers. There were an estimated 3,900 Union dead, 18,000 wounded and 5,400 missing, many buried in the cemetery Lincoln came to consecrate. They had proven that democratic citizens were willing to fight, and die, to preserve their country.