“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Abraham Lincoln’s humble prediction, part of his Gettysburg Address, has proven half right and half wrong. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the two speeches given to commemorate the battle, one is forgotten, the other unforgettable. That’s an important distinction, given what the Supreme Court decided last week.
On July 1, 1863, Confederate and Union forces engaged in a three-day battle on the fields of Gettysburg. Casualty counts run as high as 50,000 (Vietnam War casualties were 58,000 over a period of ten years). Soldiers were buried where they fell, hallowing the battleground. This in turn led the organizing committee for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg to decide to dedicate the land that very summer.
The committee selected Edward Everett to give the main speech. It was an impressive choice, as he had been president of Harvard University, member of the U. S. House of Representatives, U. S. senator, Governor of Massachusetts, U. S. secretary of state, and minister to Great Britain. Everett accepted the invitation but requested postponing the date to allow for adequate time in preparing his remarks. The committee agreed and the dedication was reset for November 19. Almost as an afterthought, David Wills, the president of the committee, asked President Abraham Lincoln to make a “few appropriate remarks” alongside Everett.
Everett gave a two-hour speech. It featured soaring language sprinkled with a smattering of unrelated metaphors: “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice…” While eloquent, Everett’s oration is largely forgotten.
Lincoln spoke for two minutes. His message began with – and was built entirely on – one metaphor: rebirth. This metaphor frames the entire message (I’ve highlighted Lincoln’s metaphor in italics):
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 battle-field 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 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.
Everett immediately recognized that the President’s speech would leave a lasting impression. The next day he wrote to Lincoln, expressing admiration for its “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness.” He added, “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.” Lincoln was generous in his reply: “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”
Lincoln only failed in his forecast. He felt the world would “little note, nor long remember what we say here.” His error was in the plural “we.” Lincoln’s words are unforgettable. Everett’s oration is forgotten. The reason is a two-fold dynamic. Effective communicators rely on metaphor, but they introduce it at the beginning of a message.
This is a dynamic that researchers Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky have discovered. In a study of 1,482 students, they asked respondents to read two reports about a crime. One report placed a metaphor early in the briefing, the second later on. The researchers found that if the metaphor appeared early in the report it could frame the content and was therefore more powerful in swaying opinion. Placed at the end, the metaphor had no effect. This is why Lincoln’s words are long-lasting.
Francis Carpenter, the artist who spent six months at the White House during 1864 painting a picture of Lincoln and his cabinet, noted that the president’s “most powerful thought almost invariably took on the form of a figure of speech” – a metaphor. Lincoln believed a picture “drove the point home, and clinched it, as few abstract reasoners are able to do.”1 He leaned on metaphor, but also led with it.
This explains much of last week’s Supreme Court decision striking down a 1996 federal law that denied benefits to same-sex couples. Forty years ago the gay community began to lead with metaphor, reframing same-sex relationships as a fundamental civil right. Proponents of traditional marriage were “abstract reasoners.” They lost. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy described the federal law as an assault on fundamental human rights. The gay community is doing what Lincoln did so well. If proponents of traditional marriage plan to get back in the game, they’d be wise to learn why Edward Everett’s speech is forgotten while Lincoln’s remains unforgettable.
1 James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 98.