Nov. 19, 2014

Gettysburg Address

by Abraham Lincoln

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on 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 that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

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 consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain- that this nation, under God, 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.

"Gettysburg Address" by Abraham Lincoln. Public Domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Sharon Olds (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1942). She loved writing, and for a while she wrote fiction. She said: "But then when I moved to New York, I realized that I wasn't comfortable making stuff up. I had had it with angels and demons who (if your faith was strong enough) you believed were in the room with you. I'd had enough of fiction."

She got a Ph.D. at Columbia University, writing a dissertation about Emerson. The day she finished, she stood on the steps of the Columbia library and told herself that she was going to pursue her own poetry, no matter how bad it was. She said, "Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also toilets." She had a tough time getting them published. After she submitted her first poem, about her family, she said: "They told me: ‘This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest The Ladies' Home Journal.'"She finally published her first book, Satan Says (1980), when she was 37 years old. Since then she has published more than 10 books of poetry, including The Sign of Saturn (1991), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), Strike Sparks (2004) and, most recently, Stag's Leap (2012), about the end of her 30-year marriage. Stag's Leap won the Pulitzer Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize.

She said: "Whenever we give our pen some free will, we may surprise ourselves. All that wanting to seem normal in regular life, all that fitting in falls away in the face of one's own strange self on the page. [...] Writing or making anything — a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake — has self-respect in it. You're working. You're trying. You're not lying down on the ground, having given up."

It's the birthday of poet and novelist (John Orley) Allen Tate (books by this author), born in Winchester, Kentucky (1899). After Tate got fired from a true-stories magazine for correcting his boss's grammar, he rented a farmhouse in upstate New York and wrote his best-known poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1928), about standing at the gate of a cemetery and feeling cut off from the past. He went on to write the biographies Stonewall Jackson (1928) and Jefferson Davis (1929), and his novel The Fathers (1938). His Collected Poems came out in 1977.

It's the anniversary of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, in 1874. The Union was the outgrowth of dozens of local temperance societies that sprang up in the early 1870s. The Temperance women would march into saloons, and there they'd sing hymns, pray, and ask the barkeepers to stop selling liquor. Within 10 years, the movement had grown so much that the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union was organized. The temperance movement is still going today, with about a million members and chapters in 72 countries.

It was on this date in 1861 that Mrs. Julia Ward Howe sat down and wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The poem was first published in the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and later set to the popular melody "Glory Hallelujah."

It's the birthday of the 20th president of the United States, James Abram Garfield, born in Orange, Ohio (1831). After graduating from Williams College in 1856, he returned home to Ohio as a teacher of classics at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio. As a parlor trick, he could hold a pen in each hand and simultaneously write in Latin and Greek. He went on to gain distinction as a Union officer in the Battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga, got himself elected first to the House and then the Senate, and emerged as the compromise choice to head the Republican ticket for president in 1880.

Only four months after he took office, on July 2, 1881, he was fatally shot by a deranged gunman in the Washington, D.C. railroad station. He lingered painfully for over two months, and finally died on September 19.

When President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Garfield gave a speech in New York City, in which he said: "For mere vengeance I would do nothing. This nation is too great to look for mere revenge. But for the security of the future, I would do everything."

On this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.

Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words, and only 10 sentences. It was so brief, in fact, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn't even realize that the president had spoken, because a photographer setting up his camera had momentarily distracted them. The next day, Everett told Lincoln, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

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