A speechwriting lesson, on the 146th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Speechwriter’s speechwriter Tack Cornelius reminds his brethren that President Lincoln delivered his great Gettysburg Address on this date in 1863:

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.

Cornelius quotes the late William Safire, a former speechwriter and an authority on oratory, who gave a little speechwriterly background in The New York Times, Sept 2, 2002:

An irreverent aside: All speechwriters stand on the shoulders of orators past. Lincoln’s memorable conclusion was taken from a fine oration by the Rev. Theodore Parker at an 1850 Boston antislavery convention. That social reformer defined the transcendental “idea of freedom” to be “a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.” Lincoln, 13 years later, dropped the “alls” and made the phrase his own. (A little judicious borrowing by presidents from previous orators shall not perish from the earth.)

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