Lincoln’s magnificent brevity

 

Everyone’s looking for Abraham Lincoln.

Search our movies, money, monuments, leaders. Where’s Abe?

Find him in the Gettysburg Address, 150 this Tuesday. Not just the words. Find him in the brevity. The briefest great address in history.

He journeyed 86 miles from Washington to the battlefield. When he arrived, he read for perhaps two minutes, then gave way to Edward Everett, star speaker of the day, who, as the crowd hoped he would, ripped into an overwrought, two-hour sockdolager.

But Lincoln’s reticence prevails.

Why so short? He agonized over, shouldered as his own burden, the carnage of civil war. Summer had brought outrageous holocaust where he spoke; both country and leader were still traumatized. Seventeen more months of jeopardy stretched ahead. In the midst of nightmare, he grieved over civilization’s end, the smash of the American experiment.

As he read, perhaps he heard the silence of the dead.

With time, he’d discern God’s equivocal hand in the Union victory, still far off. But his address says what he knew: Words were unequal to the horror, the holiness. In bareheaded humility, he read his 270 words. In eloquence and grace, he said no more. In wisdom, he became one of the few speakers ever to say what he had and go.

Lincoln’s not hiding. His passion and hope lie in the silence he heard and the silence he kept. His Second Inaugural, the noblest refusal of vengeance in our history, is likewise short. He knew words could never live up to the holiness and horror — and we can never live up to his words. Or to his sad, lovely restraint.

John Timpane is a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer.

©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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