Last weekend I attended festivities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the fight many scholars credit with turning the tide in favor of the northern soldiers during the Civil War.
I watched cannons simulate the "longest, loudest artillery bombardment" in American military history, in the words of the event's narrator, and then I watched as 10,000 living historians re-enacted one of the most famous frontal assaults of all time: Pickett's Charge.
But it was November 19, 1863, that the event most associated with the battleground happened. On that day 150 years ago, the president stood in that place and spoke words that have been so repeated in the decades since, they have been reduced in the minds of many to little more than a cliche: "Four score and seven years ago…"
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln dedicated the spot as a national cemetery, honored those who had fought and died there, called upon listeners to rededicate themselves to winning the war and laid the groundwork for reconciliation between the north and south to come. It was the greatest speech ever written or delivered. And it was just 270 words long.
Barack Obama's first inaugural was 2,395 words, according to the Presidency Project – long, but not as long as Ronald Reagan's second inaugural, which spanned 2,561 words. Bill Clinton's 1995 State of the Union lasted an hour and 25 minutes. And in 2008, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom posted a state of the city speech to YouTube that went on for seven and a half hours. Lincoln at Gettysburg is said to have spoken for just a little more than two minutes.
As we look back on the century and a half since those three days in July that changed our future forever, there are many lessons we can take away. It would be nice if one of them were how much more powerful it can be to speak briefly than at length.
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