Abraham Lincoln, by many accounts, was a great public speaker. Many of his words and phrases still resonate today. During his famous serious of debates with Stephen A Douglas, a Democrat who supported slavery, in particular the expansion of slavery into Kansas, and Lincoln, an anti-slavery Republican, he coined his phrase “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln and Douglas were both vying for the Senate seat from Illinois and Douglas agreed to debate Lincoln seven times.
Political debates and speeches in that era were a much different animal from what we see today. Thousands of people would turn out for speeches or debates, much as people today attend rock concerts and sports events, for the entertainment value. “Good” speeches were expected to run at least an hour and “great” speeches were two hours or longer.
As Lincoln subsequently lost the election to Douglas, it might be thought that he lost the debates as well. However, according to some historians, that in itself is debatable. But these debates brought Lincoln into the national spotlight and played no small part in his receiving the Republican nomination for President.
While Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address did not reach the rhetorical levels of his Second, it was nonetheless a plea for unity and friendship. Perhaps the best part were his closing words:
“I am loathe to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not become enemies. Though passion may have strained it, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and every patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone over all this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
These are fine words and excellent sentiments. But if you ask any American school child, or any American with the least knowledge of our history which was Abraham Lincoln’s finest speech, there is only one answer. “The Gettysburg Address.” Many of us memorized this speech growing up.
The Gettysburg Address was delivered on this day, November 19th in the year 1963 to commemorate the dedication of the cemetery for Union soldiers who had died the previous July. Remarkably, Lincoln was not even the primary speaker. His invitation was almost an afterthought. After the first speaker gave the expected one-hour speech expected by the attendees, Lincoln arose and spoke for just two short minutes. Two minutes. That’s the modern day equivalent of a tweet versus a magazine article.
But in those two minutes, those 272 words, Lincoln gave perhaps the most important speech in American history. Listen again to his words from this day in 1863 as spoken by actor Jeff Daniels:
Today another President of the United States sent a message to our nation. Like Lincoln, his words were few:
Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2017
Two Presidents spoke on November 19th. The first represented the best of all that our country stands for. The second stands for, well, you decide.