Before and After: The Gettysburg Address

For this blog post, I thought it would be fun to take a famous speech and work backward, adding unnecessary words and phrases, making it so verbose as to be hard to recognize. I think my effort succeeds in showing how simplifications and reductions of the kind that a good copyeditor routinely makes can help a meandering piece of writing cut to the heart of the writer’s sentiment in a way that is truly memorable.

Gettysburg Address

It was the speech that made Lincoln a rock star. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19926)

One hundred and fifty-two years ago today, on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. The whole piece, which countless schoolchildren and scholars have memorized, took him only two minutes to deliver. It was brief because it used powerful, direct language.

I’ll give you a section of the address, then I’ll give you the bloviated version of it. At times, my version might sound comical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at other times it seemed believable or reminded you of the way you’ve heard modern politicians and other real people speak.

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.

It was four score and seven years before the present day that the people who founded this country decided to bring forth on this continent of ours an entirely new nation, one that was conceived in liberty and that was dedicated to nothing less than the proposition that all men are created equal to one another.

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 battlefield 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.

At the present time, we are currently in the process of engaging in an armed conflict with a rival faction. This conflict, which is occurring within our own borders, is considered by many people, myself included, to be happening on a large scale. Not only that, but it is putting to the test the notion of whether the nation I just mentioned, or any nation that anyone else has conceived and dedicated in a similar manner, can actually endure for very long at all. We have gathered together here on a battlefield of that particular armed conflict, a battlefield that is larger than most. We have come on this day, of all days, for the purpose of dedicating a certain portion of that field as an altogether final—some might say eternal—place of rest for those who are no longer with us because they gave their lives in this very place in order that that same nation might potentially continue as a going concern. It is altogether fitting and only proper, in my opinion, that we should be doing 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.

But, in a sense that is even larger, we cannot really dedicate—we cannot really consecrate—we cannot really designate as hallow—this ground on which we stand. Those men who were brave and have now gone to a better place, and those men who were brave and are still with us today—not only did they all struggle here, but believe it or not they have already consecrated it, far above and beyond our own powers, which I would venture to say are middling at best, to add or detract in any way whatsoever. The people of the world will probably take little note, and will probably not remember for very long, all things considered, what we are saying here at this moment, but it can in all likelihood never forget the things that those brave men proceeded to do here. It is for us, the ones who are living, rather to be entirely dedicated here to the work that was left unfinished, the work that those men who were compelled to fight here have up to this point so incredibly nobly contributed to advances in. It is rather for all of us to be here dedicated to taking on the great task still remaining in front of us—that from these dead men, upon whom we bestow great honor, we do not hesitate to increase our devotion to that cause for which they themselves gave the last full measure of their own devotion—that all of us here be highly resolved that these men who gave truly the only lives they had shall not have given their lives to no avail at all—that this particular nation, under the one and only God, shall actually instead experience a process of giving birth to a new state of being free to do with our lives as we wish—and that government belonging to the people, administered by the people, for the intents and purposes of the people, shall not ever be prone to perishing from the face of the earth.

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