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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Gettysburg Address: Shaped by Small Pox?

By the time Lincoln was back on the train returning to Washington, he was down with a high fever from Small Pox. I’m thinking the illness did not grip the president the second he stepped on the train. Already distraught over Mary falling off a horse-carriage, his son Tad taken grievously ill, and the old, tired war, the president was almost certainly already stricken when he delivered the address and perhaps even when he wrote it the day and evening before. I suspect that the Gettysburg Address would not have been only 272 words long had Lincoln been well.
I make it point of getting a flu shot every year now. Contracting the illness was particularly costly academically when I was in graduate school. Typically, I would ration any accumulated energy to going to class. Back in bed, I found writing to be quite arduous, and sustained reading to be almost as exhaustive. In terms of writing, editing particular words or sentences was easiest, for it takes far less energy to think than to write on and on.
I suspect that Lincoln wrote such a short speech because thinking up just the right word or phrase was easier than writing a lot. Small Pox is much more serious than the common cold. Lincoln was likely already exhausted and feeling bad on the train to Gettysburg and in the bedroom that night before the day of the address. Lincoln’s emphasis on diction rather than length was likely a function of the illness rather than political calculus.
Lincoln's address was so short that the photographer only caught the president as he was returning to his seat. In the photo, Lincoln's head (below the leafless tree, just above the crowd-level, and facing the camera) is down, perhaps because he was already not feeling well. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
By the end of the twentieth century and into the next decades at least, U.S. presidents typically relied on a speech-writing staff to write many speeches, the vast majority of which being long. One effect of this trend is the shift in presidential leadership from broad principles to incremental legislative reform. In this context of technician presidents, the attendant speech-inflation resists any feasible restraint. Strangely, presidents overlook Lincoln’s short address as a precedent and act more like the famous orator who spoke for two hours just before Lincoln. In spite of the obvious lesson from Gettysburg, the notion that a very short speech can be more powerful than a long one has been lost on the American political elite.
The explanation may lie in Lincoln’s address being a function of him being ill rather than any political calculus. Even so, a discovery is a discovery, even if it comes about by accident. That the subsequent political success of the Gettysburg Address did not give rise to an ongoing practice in political rhetoric suggests that such a short, extremely thought-out speech runs against the current of politics at the moment and even out a year or two. Stature achieved by hard-thought reputational management literally by intensely investing in word choice, or diction, is of value nevertheless even within the space of a four-year term, especially if the incumbent has courageously taken on a few vested interests by moving society off a “sacred cow” or two. Even if neither statesmanship nor politics accounts for the severe brevity of Lincoln’s address, I contend that much political gold is waiting for the leader—whether in the public or private sector—who radically alters his or her rhetorical style and preparation.