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Let Us Now Praise Brief Remarks

Posted by Francie Latour  February 10, 2012 07:42 AM

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At a time when Republican presidential candidates build speeches around the virtues of children working as janitors and reach for lofty metaphors about safety nets and trampolines, it's worth taking a minute to remember the brief remarks of a Republican president that spoke so powerfully to the idea of America that they have been memorized by generations of schoolchildren.

Gettysburg Address from Adam Gault on Vimeo.

This Sunday marks the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and man could he give a speech. When I recently stumbled on this haunting, almost apocalyptic animation video of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, I was reminded of how completely an audience could be rapt by the words of a political leader, something I don't think I've experienced in my lifetime. Take a look.

Lincoln's 300-word address, delivered on a blood-soaked Pennsylvania battlefield on Nov. 19, 1863, wasn't even the main event. In dedicating the national cemetery at Gettysburg, organizers had asked him to give "a few appropriate remarks" to follow the superstar orator of the day, Boston's own Edward Everett, a former Massachusetts governor and US secretary of state.

Ever the Harvard grad, Everett spoke for over two hours under a scattered rain. The crowd was moved -- but in the history books, Everett turned out to be the opening act for a two-minute speech that would anchor our national identity and reverberate around the world. Without uttering the words "Union," "Confederate," "slavery" or "Gettysburg," Lincoln spoke to the war's watershed significance: to state's rights and federal powers, to slavery and liberty, to the fragility of freedom and the story of an imperfect people willing freedom into being. Pretty tough to pull off -- even tougher when you're coming down with a debilitating case of smallpox, as Lincoln was that November afternoon.

Happy birthday to the towering, top-hat wearing gentleman from Kentucky.

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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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