By Ray Petersen — Senator Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, is not well known outside his time, or America, but he is responsible for the brevity and dynamism of Abraham Lincoln’s memorable, if you were there, and historical, if you weren’t Gettysburg Address.
You see, Lincoln, aware that Everett could be pretty long-winded, that there would be a succession of other minor speakers, and even more importantly, that there would be significant newspaper coverage of the event, was determined to make an impact.
The venue was the Soldiers National cemetery, near Gettysburg, the scene of a horrific battle between the battling Union and Confederate forces, where the loss of life was extremely high.
Lincoln wrote the speech in Washington, and on the long train journey through Maryland and Pennsylvania, he practiced his speech interminably, feeling that he owed it to all of those who had died.
He later said, “My speech does not express how deeply I feel about these men. I want people to understand what freedom means to us, and how much we owe to the brave soldiers who died at Gettysburg.”
During the night of the 18th of November, he slaved over his address, pausing only to dine with an important group of his supporters, and to acknowledge a curious crowd who gathered under his window.
He completed the 269 words, and after midnight was satisfied with his work.
At 11 am the next day, the official party, with the razzamatazz of a military escort, marching bands, and thousands of onlookers, wound its way out of town and up to the cemetery on the hill.
It was November 19th, 1863.
Lincoln dedicated his speech first to the idea (proposition), that all men are equal, and of the need to recognise those who fell in battle, but he refused to “consecrate, or hallow this ground,” saying instead that it was up to all us those left living, to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” He wanted America to recognise that all of those who perished did so to protect their way of life, and form of government, and that the
people, “shall not perish from the earth,” and the soldiers will not have died for nothing.
Lincoln who himself died violently at the hand of an assassin, John Wilkes Booth, little more than two years later, maybe not knowing how he had contributed to, not only
America’s historical DNA, but a more worldly appreciation of the value of human life.
A hundred years later, along came another equally well-spoken American, a decorated war hero, charming and handsome, a Harvard university upper-classman, who, by the age of 30 was well ensconced in politics, having a politician/businessman father, Joe, and a socialite/philanthropist mother, Rose.
It was an unlikely upbringing for a socially conscious individual, but John Fitzgerald Kennedy was exactly what post-WW2 America was looking for.
He was an idealist, intelligent, articulate, and at least in public, flawless.
Expecting something of a dilettante, Americans were surprised at the strength, maturity, and wisdom of the young Senator and after proving himself in the political arena, JFK became President on January 20, 1961.
He confounded opponents saying, in 1961, “Never let us negotiate out of fear, and never let us fear to negotiate.” In 1963, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings,” and later.
In his inaugural speech he challenged his citizens with, “Ask not what your country can do for
you, but what you can do for your country,” setting the tone for a bold presidency.
He challenged the other nations too, “to fight the common enemies of man, tyranny, poverty, disease and war,” while telling America that change may not take place in a hundred, or a thousand days, “or even in our lifetimes, but let us begin.”
Later, he was to repeat these very sentiments saying, “if not us, who? If not now, when?”
But he didn’t only engage in the rhetoric by asking questions.
He had answers too, and wasn’t backward in expressing
them, or naïve in his recognition of global influences.
He wrote of his fear of the burgeoning influence of the media, “No matter how big the lie, repeat it often enough, and it becomes the truth.” He said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. We enjoy the comfort of opinion, without the discomfort of thought.”
So how then, has a proud nation, one that spawned such intelligence and succinct expression, found itself a mere 50 years on, with a leader who appoints only to disappoint.
Donald Trump continues, not to disappoint us, as much as to keep us on the edge of our seats like a bad soap opera.
Government by Twitter has arrived.
Who said it could never happen? Mr Trump, I don’t know what your game is, but please go and play in your own back yard, and take some advice from Kennedy, who said, “Let us put an end to war, before war puts an end to us.”