That Lincoln Music: The Language of Gettysburg

Shelby Foote called that almost mystical power Lincoln had with words “the Lincoln music,” and that’s exactly right. There are words of Lincoln I have returned to hundreds of times because their character–poetic, chantlike, entrancing, powerful–is so overwhelming. It has some of the character of Whitman, but with an oratorical mastery, compression, and skill that would have made Cicero stand in awe had he understood English.

Cicero’s Latin had a some of that quality, but Latin, for all its virtues, is not English. Our tongue is unique. Like the Engish-speaking peoples–and most particularly the Americans–it is a mongrel, made up of bits and pieces of old and new languages, each chosen for a purpose. We can thank the peculiarities of history–and most particularly Chaucer–for that.

The collisions of governments, the peculiarities of court life, the vernacular of the common man, and the deep reading of medieval English intellectuals in foreign languages for giving us this alternately majestic and homely language, suitable for anything. It has the muscle of the Norse, the elegance of the French, the romance of the Spanish and Italian, the loftiness of the Roman, the precision of the Greek, and earthiness of the English. And, in American English, we have the cascading rootedness of the native people and the African.  It is the most expressive language in the world.

And Lincoln, a brilliant man with simple origins, heard the music and wielded it to magnificent effect. Of course, you’ve read it before, but read it again with Ovid, Plutarch, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, American roots music, and the voice of a simple cracker-barrel yarn-spinner in your head. Listen to the internal meter and the masterful use of anaphora, trace the mood as at rises and falls. Realize that the greatest orator of the last hundred years, Winston Churchill, called it “The ultimate expression of the majesty of Shakespeare’s language.”

Take a moment. Hear the music of words:

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 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 this 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.


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.