Michael Metzger

“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.


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  1. Great post, Mike. Thanks.

    Gary Wills and other historians have argued that in The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln renarrated the country’s history in favor of the side against slavery. A significant piece of the slavery debate had to do with which founding document did the “conceiving” – the Declaration of Independence or The Constitution. Lincoln said the country was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” which comes from the Declaration of Independence. Southern writers and orators framed the country’s history as starting with The Constitution, which permitted slavery.

    So Lincoln’s speech is unforgettable because of its powerful use of metaphor, but also because it reframed the entire history of the country as originating with The Declaration of Independence.

  2. Mike, yes, metaphor is powerful…even if the metaphor is inaccurate or imprecise.

    Archbishop, Donald Wuerl had an excellent editorial in the Post yesterday explaining why the phrase “marriage equality” really doesn’t apply to this debate. He argues that the idea of equality is treating two like things the same, and a Christian (and sacramental) understanding of marriage is very unlike marriage defined and practiced by homosexuals, as well as many heterosexual couples in America today.

    According to Wuerl, equality is an effective and persuasive term to employ from a rhetorical standpoint, but substantively it is problematic because we are not talking about two “like” things.

  3. Jessica:

    Great point. Yes, I read that column with great interest. This is why Philip Rieff felt our age is best described as a “deathwork.” The meaning of marriage simply cannot be fathomed without God. It’s the death of a culture he said. Rieff felt God – the sacred canopy – has been shorn away from public life (faith still applies to your private life). That’s why it sounds utterly arbitrary and capricious for anyone to restrict marriage to heterosexual, monogamous couples.

  4. I agree Mike, metaphors are a strong communication/rhetorical tool. Lincoln new that well!

    Jessica makes a good point also, even if they (metaphors) are wrong (logically for this point) they are still powerful in completing the given task.

    So that presupposes that something slightly more powerful is behind the metaphor. Namely an ideology. Therefore, if the metaphor is clearly powerful and important, how much value then is the thing supporting it (at this point logically or morally).

    My thinking is, is it a true juxtaposition to contrast metaphors to abstract reasoning. If the above is accurate; reason/logic “conceiving” the context of ideas and a metaphor gives rhetorical “life”

    It seems these kind of arguments are just from a dislike of reason, rather than having any arguementative value.

    Even in Lincoln’s response to Everett, “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.” This seems easily a statement toward the ideological value of his metaphoric message.

  5. Mark:

    Thank you for your thoughtful observations. Two replies:

    1) Metaphor is not a “tool” as you put it. That’s a utilitarian approach to metaphor. I’ll elaborate below.

    2) No dislike of reason, simply a distinction between our conscious, cognitive behavior and that which is non-conscious.

    Regarding #2, I refer you to Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary” as well as Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Conscious reflection only constitutes five percent of our behaviors (the slow part). It’s a left hemisphere function governed largely by reason and ideas. But 95 percent of behavior is “fast” – non-conscious. It’s a right hemisphere function shaped by metaphor. A fully function human is both/and – metaphor and ideas.

    Regarding #1, this is why music best reflects how we think. The brain can comprehend several notes simultaneously. However, it generally highlights one note above the others. And it can also sense when something is out of sync. In the same way, in real life, metaphors and ideas occur simultaneously, but the human brain (designed to start thinking in the right hemisphere) initially looks for an image, metaphor. The metaphor frames the other notes.

    In this way, Mark, metaphor is not a “tool” as you put it. That’s a utilitarian approach to metaphor. It is only in the left hemisphere that we think utility. Utility has its place, but Lincoln didn’t “use” metaphor. Steeped in ancient literature, including the Bible, he saw metaphor as intrinsic to making sense of language. Imagining the intrinsic and seamless nature of reality (both/and) is a a function of the right hemisphere.

  6. Years ago I read Warren Wiersbe’s “Preaching and Teaching with Imagination”. A few years back I taught English composition a NOC for a couple of years. I began the semesters with Wiersbe’s evaluation of the speeches of Ahitophel and Hushai. In their cases Ahitophel was the shorter of the two speeches. Ahitophel’s was accurate, short and to the point. Hushai’s was inaccurate but full of metaphor. Hushai’s advice won the day, partly because the metaphors used stirred the hearts of those who listened and partly because the Spirit of the Lord was working. I sought to use that concept with my students–the power of metaphor.
    Unfortunately, in my own preaching and teaching I fall far short of doing that. Maybe it is my seminary training, maybe it is my cultural training, maybe it is my own laziness, maybe not enough dependence on the Spirit of God, maybe it is a combination of all of them, but I am reminded that I do not practice what I taught my students. It is so much easier just to be accurate and precise. Your blog is a good reminder and challenge to me to not be so lazy in communicating the most important message of all. Thanks, Mike

  7. John:

    Your self-awareness is endearing. Your humility will keep you out of a ditch. But you’re right – it’s discipline that will get you further down the road. I coach a few preachers. My first question is always: what’s your metaphor? When do you introduce it? How do you frame it? Keep after it. Practice eventually becomes habit.

  8. Thanks for your response Mike, this is a very valuable discussion that needs to make progress.

    I have not read the suggested books (you know how book piles go) but have read articles and watched some online lectures of McGilChrists (not Kahneman) and other Neuroscientist. As a Christian thinker, I find McGilChrist behind in thinking, as I find much of the materialist/physicalist worldview thinking.

    As a Materialist, it is conceived that the brain is the central process of thinking (which McGilChrist seems to do) then there are major discrepancies. For example, you referred to 95% of our behavior is granted by way of the right hemispheres epistemology, the non conscious aspect of our brain. All science agrees that the physical world is ruled by natural law (a finely tuned universe the human creature being the most finely tuned). Should it not follow then from that 95%, being ruled by natural law, that ontologically most of human behavior is fixed, uniform, identical carbon copies. It is choiceless, freedom found only in the 5%. Metaphorically thinking, it is very robotic in nature. But this is clearly not the case; there is insurmountable diversity among humans.

    In Christianity that fact that the mind is different from the brain is detailed by many thanks to work from Christian thinkers like JP Moreland, the late Dallas Willard, Prof. Michael Murray and Prof. Stewart Goetz, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig and many others.

    You might find this very interesting… google “Eben Alexander”, a neuroscientist with quit a scientific story.

    Again thanks Mike, sorry to take up space. Respectfully

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