It may have been the most inaccurate statement ever uttered by any president of the United States. But it wasn't a lie. It was just humility.
On this date, 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln made a speech at a new cemetery in Pennsylvania, a speech in which he may have invented the political tactic of trying to lower expectations. He said, "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here."
That was part of what has become known as the Gettysburg Address. Though, at the time, that title was more likely thought to belong to the event's main speaker, Edward Everett, who regaled the assemblage for more than two hours with a detailed description of the battle.
The program for the dedication ceremony referred to Lincoln's contribution as "Dedicatory Remarks."
These mere "remarks" have come down to us as the definitive description, not only of what the Civil War was all about, but what the United States of America is for. The belief "that all men are created equal." And the hope "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
It is also remarkable for its brevity. A mere 272 words. Or a little more than half the length of a typical Salt Lake Tribune editorial. So here let the source of many writers' envy speak for itself:
Fourscore 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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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 here 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.
Other thoughts on the Gettysburg Address:
"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."
Edward Everett, the main speaker at the Gettysburg Cemetery dedication, in a letter to President Lincoln
"We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of."
Editorial, Harrisburg Patriot & Union, Nov. 24, 1863
"Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln's words 'silly remarks,' deserving 'a veil of oblivion," apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity. In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion."
Editorial, Harrisburg Patriot-News, Nov. 14, 2013
"Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, the new Constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they had brought there with them. They walked off from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely."
Garry Wills, historian, author, "Lincoln at Gettysburg"
"The most eloquent expression of the new birth of freedom brought forth by reform liberalism."
James McPherson, historian, author, "Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War"
"Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before-daddies swung forth, upon this sweet groovy land a swingin', stompin', jumpin', blowin', wailin' new nation, hip to the cool groove of liberty and solid sent with the ace lick dat all the studs, chicks, cats and kitties – red, white, or blue – is created level in front. In straight talk, the same, dig what I mean?"
Richard Buckley, aka "Lord Buckley," on the 1956 album "His Royal Hipness"
More information at www.gettyready.org