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Some great words from a great man
on 12 January 2014
Lincoln is justly famous as a great orator; his brief spell of home-tuition as a child and his lifelong self-education, with his years of work in law and politics, sure paid off! To start my review, here's just one example of his typically pithy yet vivid style: 'Military glory - that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.' So brilliantly and poignantly succinct! As an avid reader of military history that really struck me powerfully.
Most of the texts here are reasonably lengthy, not so much in themselves (it is, after all, a very slim book), as in relation to the famous nugget of a speech that gives this brief collection it's name: the Gettysburg address itself is but one page! The moment of its declamation passed so quickly that a photographer on hand was unable to get a decent picture of Lincoln. Renowned orator Edward Everett was the main scheduled speaker at the event, the dedication of the cemetery housing the dead of the battle of Gettysburg.
To his great credit - the immediate reaction in the popular press to Lincoln's brief oration was predominantly negative - Everett had the sense and good grace to commend Lincoln with words to the effect that Abe had said better in two minutes what he'd attempted to say in two hours! There is of course also the famous irony, re Lincoln saying 'The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here', as he was so right respecting Everett's lengthy disquisition, and so wrong in terms of his own words.
How sad it is that his death, after his momentous steering of the Union along a path both righteous in intent and successful in execution, should come in a way foreshadowed in his own words, as when he spoke of 'the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them.' When I watched Ken Burns' superb ACW documentary, Lincoln's assassination moved me to weep... and then order this and Ronald White's biography A. Lincoln!
Some of the speeches, such as the Peoria address, are much longer, wordier, complex and therefore potentially confusing. One can see an evolution in Abe's position across the years, but it always remained one founded upon a very broadly humane position. This means that much of this book is effectively context-setting around the titular address, or rather around the key concepts that run through all the speeches. This slim volume is very handy as a quick and easy way of reading some of the often sonorous words - 'the mystic chords of memory' - that issued from the mind, hand and lips of this most memorable and venerable of US presidents.
PS - Like Lincoln's face itself, this book benefits also from a very striking design.