I came home the other night with the idea, not particularly sure that I’d have the gumption to follow through with it.
Ken Burns, one of the greatest of documentarians in our country, had put together a website and a project for the anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. The speech, given on the remains of the battlefield of the town with the same name, remains one of the greatest, shortest speeches given by any American President.
Burns put his project together with a website called Learn the Address. I came home that night with the idea:
“what would think if we all read portions of the speech? I could edit it together.”
I honestly didn’t think the kids would care or want to do it. After all, children like me hated learning the Address in grade and high school. It wasn’t until years later, after taking classes for my history minor in college that I understood the significance.
The average time for all the featured speakers at the Gettysburg dedication was over 1 1/2 hours. Some went as long as two. Lincoln, as a matter of fact, was an after thought as an invitation. So concerned about what to say was our president that he hadn’t written a speech. It ended up on the back of an envelope or perhaps a napkin on the train to Gettysburg. Previous speakers had taken so long that the photographer for the day was slowly putting plates in his camera . . . and he only got a blurried picture of Lincoln leaving the stage. It remains the only image of the president giving the speech.
In those same college classes I realized something: this was a major representative, in a short 2-minute speech, of what this country was about. We were (and are) young. We were divided, deeply so. In succinct, perfect words, he states our youth, our exuberance, and moves the words of the Declaration of Independence forward . . . showing that “all men are created equal” is not simply about old white men. He’d signed the emancipation proclamation. Now, on paper, by presidential mandate, everyone was on equal footing.
Burns, in his documentary on the civil war, also revealed a major flaw in the way that people give the speech. The last lines, “that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” We tend, as kids and adults, to emphasize the prepositions and not the nouns. We emphasize of, by and for . . . but Burns realized through historical accounts and proper reading that this wasn’t about the prepositions . . . it was about the people. It changes, dramatically, the context of the speech: “a government of the PEOPLE, by the PEOPLE and for the PEOPLE . . . shall not perish from the earth.” It pushes forward the idea of the founding fathers that this republic has its own principals and that the people of this great nation are indeed what makes it great.
So Sunday Noah, my son, asked why we hadn’t recorded the speech yet? It was then I realized . . . this was a fun project, but they were learning, too. They got to see, by breaking down into parts, what each portion of this very short speech meant. That everyone should be equal; that the nation was divided and we were suffering because of a prolonged, protracted war; that we are young but idealistic . . . and that the most important part of our country was not the bureaucrats or the pompous, arrogant landowners . . . that the people, the very men and women who suffered through the battle for which they were dedicating this land, those are who matter.
My kids wanted to give the speech with me . . . and learned in the process what it took to get this country where it is. We may still be divided, politically, but then we were divided 150 years ago, too. Even then, our greatest president realized that it wasn’t the division in the politicians, it was the people who mattered. I’m proud to have added our little version of this speech to the annals of Burns’ project. You can upload too by going to Learn the Address and giving the speech yourself.