The Perfect Speech

In films both big budget and small, TV specials and a car commercial (for a Lincoln, what else?), the 16th president seems to be very much in vogue. President Obama frequently cites him, and while the movie Lincoln did not win an Oscar for Best Picture, Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the statesman did win the coveted trophy. The American public is more aware of Lincoln now than they were during the president’s birth bicentennial in 2009.

Movies and TV shows pale in comparison, however, to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for communicating the power and genius of the man from Kentucky. The memorial was packed with tourists during a recent visit I made to the site. It was fascinating to watch people of various races and countries drop their voices as they entered the monument to gaze up at the massive statue of the president.

I found the reaction of those who read the Gettsyburg Address, chiseled into the south chamber wall, even more riveting. His address is the perfect speech: short enough to maintain the attention of the modern public, yet packed with meaning. Phrases like “Four score and seven years ago,” “long endure,” “these honored dead” and “a new birth of freedom” evoke powerful emotions. I saw many of the visitors wiping away tears. To see that sort of reaction to Lincoln’s own words was more satisfying than watching any movie about his life.

 

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.