We don’t really know what the voice sounded like, but we recognize the sentiment at once. And we can picture him, standing tall in the sunlight, speaking over the graves of fallen soldiers as the crowd listens in silence. He stands in a famous burial ground. Despite the greatness of what is said, there are no cheers. The speech will stand like a rock for centuries, for it is a foundation that defines a political entity, a culture, an ideal and perhaps in the long run, an empire. School children will memorize its phrases and its cadences until it becomes a kind of model of public speech. Lesser men and eventually women will draw on its form and essence, sometimes to capture the spirit of the thing, sometimes the style, and sometimes as a cheap grandstand trick to inflame the crowds. Praising the sacrifice of the dead and the inheritance of the ancestors, holding aloft ideals for which they stood and exhorting the crowd to stay the course, the speech will embody both truth and power. The speaker will die unexpectedly soon after and send the state reeling, just when she thought she was on firmer footing. History surely would have been different had he lived a bit longer.
“The future will wonder at us as the present wonders at us now.” So spoke Pericles twenty five centuries ago.
And if we today have only a dim idea of Pericles’ speech over the Athenian dead during the war with Sparta– the Peloponnesian War –Lincoln surely knew it. He knew what ground he stood on and what surrounded him. Every turn of phrase in the Gettysburg Address can be attributed to one classical rhetorical device or another, all of them common in Athens 2,500 years ago.
The previous speaker at Gettysburg was Edward Everett. Lincoln’s speech towers over Everett’s in every way.
But Everett was the draw. A Harvard professor who taught Emerson, he was a polished public speaker, in demand at just such events as this. Commanding top billing, he was largely responsible for the vast crowd, upwards of 20,000 people. Lincoln was the afterthought. His invitation came months after Everett’s place had been secured.
But it’s important to know what joined them on the same platform. Opening acts tell us something and set a frame. And sometimes less experienced players are unexpected surprises who steal the show. In a world where newspapers were the only mass media, and were often weeks behind and frequently unreliable, a public speech in front of a large crowd was the prosaic version of Ancient Drama – part information, part illumination and part theater. Everett’s historical synopsis of the war and his day by day replaying of the battle would have struck a chord with the crowd, as would his folksy style, staggering command of detail and emotion laden rhetoric.
It barely needed mentioning that the historic model for Gettysburg was the battle of Marathon, but that’s where Everett began. The fight for freedom and ideals, the noble sacrifice for a “light to all coming time,” the choice to bury the dead where they fell, Everett made the connection for the crowd. Set in a battlefield that would become a monument, within a cultural setting of the Greek Revival movement, Everett knew his audience, and he knew what they knew. The moment must have seemed eerily similar to the ancient story for the assembled. Although in our ironic and minimalist way we scoff at the length of the speech – two hours from memory – this would not have bothered the crowd or Lincoln himself one bit. This was our Marathon. And they knew it. As Jefferson and Washington looked to Rome, this new century had looked to Greece.
And then there is Euclid
We are all familiar with the stories of the young Lincoln and his hunger for knowledge. School was intermittent, but young Abe borrowed books from anyone he could and sat reading by candlelight. But how many of us know of his constant desire to self educate throughout the rest of his life? Here again he becomes an Athenian, this time in his restless desire to know. His candle light reading never stopped.
As a law student, Abe carried the mathematical works of Euclid in his saddle bag. Realizing the deficiency in his reasoning ability, he set his mind to mastering these most fundamental geometric principles. Most scholars believe Euclid’s style of reasoning and search for mathematical equalities informed not only Lincoln’s days as a lawyer but his political reasoning as well.
“At last I said,- Lincoln, you never can make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what demonstrate means, and went back to my law studies.”
The model is Marathon, the form and ideals, Pericles. The reasoning is Euclid, and the techniques, the rhetorical devices of the Athenians. The flavor is pure American, as it should be. But the style, the substance and the sentiment is all Ancient Greece.
And let’s not forget Lincoln’s last line, “Government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Pericles risen from the grave.