The Message That Still Inspires

Today is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Documentarian Ken Burns is urging everyone to memorize the address to internalize it. You can go to his special website at www.learntheaddress.org and hear the speech given by Americans of all political stripes, including all five living Presidents of the U.S. The video above records Ethan Pond delivering the address at the annual Greenwood School contest in Vermont. The school employs the memorization of the speech as an important part of their educational program each year with learning challenged young people.

Great inspirational speeches endure over time. Fact-laden meandering talks are forgotten soon after they are given. Former Harvard President Edward Everett gave another Gettysburg Address that lasted more than two hours on November 19, 1863 just before Lincoln’s more succinct and direct speech that lasted just a little more than two minutes. Everett is described on Wikipedia as an “American politician, pastor, educator, diplomat, and orator from Massachusetts.” His speech was well received at the time but soon forgotten.

President Abraham Lincoln was asked to make his remarks at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The 271-word speech framed the theme of the talk that is still remembered these many years later.

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.

President Lincoln was reportedly ill that day, most probably with smallpox, which may have been the reason he kept his message short and direct. Getting right to the point had dramatic impact. Lincoln’s words are chiseled into the walls of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for all to see. People gathered there on this 150th anniversary to take part in the Burns challenge, not just to recite the passage, but also to think more deeply about what it meant.

Lincoln engaged us in a conversation that has never quit. How do we keep the United States a place where all are created equal? His theme continues to provoke us daily as we watch those still lacking some freedoms argue for equal treatment, in America and around the world.

Sometimes a great idea gets lost in the forest of words used to describe it. Everett wrote the President the next day and said “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

I’m going to memorize the address to remind me of the work that we must still do as a nation to be sure that all people are treated equally, the need for which is constantly underscored by daily news reports and observations we can all make.

As an inspirational speech, the Gettysburg Address is simply one of the best ever given.  I join Ken Burns in challenging you to read, recite, and remember its important message.

-Tim Merriman

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