Donald Trump thought about giving his campaign speech at Gettysburg but opted for the safety of the Rose Garden instead.
It is unlikely a narcissist like Trump would have baulked at following in Lincoln’s footsteps but probably the Secret Service and others said it would all be too difficult.
Instead, Biden chose Gettysburg for what might be one of his most important and possibly best speeches – a tribute to whoever his speechwriter is and impressive that he managed to deliver it without looking out of his depth.
As the US lurches towards a situation reminiscent of the Weimar Republic’s end, whoever the Biden speechwriter was, they focussed on an appeal to the ‘better angels’; carefully interweaved Lincoln quotes; and, gave them contemporary resonance while channelling a few of the rhetorical devices Ted Sorensen used for JFK’s speeches.
But it is now forgotten by many that not much was expected of Lincoln at Gettysburg. As Garry Wills book, Lincoln at Gettysburg The Words that Remade America, points out there was much myth about Lincoln that day. He wasn’t even the featured speaker – that was Edward Everett Harvard President.
Lincoln, who for a variety of reasons almost didn’t make the event, gave a 272 word address which was not much noticed on the day nor in the newspapers in following days while Everett, who achieved massive post-speech press coverage, spoke for an awfully long time in a flowery style.
This week Biden said: “There’s no more fitting place than here today in Gettysburg, to talk about the cost of division. About how much it has cost America in the past, about how much it is costing us now, and about why I believe in this moment, we must come together as a nation.
“For President Lincoln, the Civil War was about the greatest of causes. The end of slavery, widening equality, pursuit of justice, the creation of opportunity, and the sanctity of freedom.
“We hear them in our heads. We know them in our hearts. We draw on them when we seek hope in hours of darkness…..Here on this sacred ground, Abraham Lincoln, re-imagined America itself. Here, a president of the United States spoke of the price of division, and the meaning of sacrifice.
“There is no place for hate in America. It will be given no license. It will be given no oxygen. It’ll be given no safe harbor. In recent weeks and months, the country has been riled by instances of excessive police force, heart-wrenching cases of racial injustice and lives needlessly and senselessly lost, by peaceful protesters, given voice to the calls for justice, by examples of violence and looting and burning that cannot be tolerated.
“I believe injustice is real. It’s a product of a history that goes back 400 years, the moment when black men, women, and children first were brought here in chains. I do not believe we have to choose between law and order, and racial justice in America. We can have both.
“And those better angels can prevail again, now. They must prevail again, now.
“100 years after Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, the vice president, Lyndon B Johnson also came here, and here’s what he said. ‘Our nation founded soul and honor in these fields of Gettysburg, we must not lose that soul in dishonor, now, on the fields of hate.’”
“Today, we’re engaged, once again, in the battle for the soul of the nation, the forces of darkness, the forces of division, the forces of yesterday are pulling us apart, holding us down and holding us back. We must free ourselves of all of them. As president, I will embrace hope, not fear. Peace, not violence. Generosity, not greed. And light, not darkness.”
Biden then ended with a biblical injunction about being part of a covenant standing together and keeping faith with the past.
To an Australian audience the Biden speech was cloying and American from days gone by. But to Americans, perhaps even a very few Republicans, it probably resonated with its historical and evangelical message and cadences.
Having walked the route of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg with a friend, John Dyett; stood at the low stone wall the Union Army was behind; and, walked over the Little Big Top ground where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain drew on his knowledge of classical history to execute a manoeuvre which prevented the Confederates from outflanking the Union troops it is hard to dismiss the power and relevance of the Gettysburg rhetoric.
Perhaps Biden will next channel Lincoln’s Second Inaugural – a longer speech than Gettysburg but still only 701 words in all.
Given riots in the streets and the deep divisions in the US the words from the Second Inaugural are probably still apt: “On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it – all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered….. insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war seeking to dissolve the Union…….Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But while Gettysburg and the Second inaugural still stir Americans – many memorise and recite them in school – the most important political speech Lincoln made was his 1860 address to the Cooper Union and his subsequent speaking tour. As Harold Holzer, in his book Lincoln at Cooper Union suggests, this closely argued speech about the key issues facing the US probably paved the way to Lincoln’s winning the nomination and the Presidency.
Biden didn’t set out to match Lincoln. He is too modest. Trump is totally immodest even though he would be hard pressed to put 272, let alone 701, coherent words together.
Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/