The Gettysburg Address: a Lesson in Defining a Vision
November 20th, 2013
Yesterday marked 150 years since President Lincoln delivered what came to be known as the Gettysburg Address. Remarkable circumstances surrounded the speech. General Lee had invaded the North with the intent of scaring the northern peoples and destroying support for the fight. To that point, the war had been disastrous for the Union and Copperhead calls for peace were quite loud. Militarily this represented the first success by the Army of the Potomac, and the first military setback for the Army of Northern Virginia. The price to that point in casualties exceeded wildest predictions before the war; an equally high number of sacrifices remained.
Casualties numbering over 50,000 were overwhelming for the small town to deal with; without a doubt the stench of death hung heavy in the air from unburied deceased soldiers and animals nearby, as well as the smells of wounds, explosives, and humanity. The speaker who preceded the President spoke for approximately two hours. It is said the President was battling small pox and was jotting notes on his speech while waiting to speak. The actual speech is only 270 words and took about two minutes to give. In the version pasted below, note that he paused after each essential point to allow listeners to absorb the gravity of his words.
Yet this speech became one of the most renowned in American history and remains as prescient today as it was in 1863. The reason is that the President had formed a clear vision in his mind of the purpose of the United States and the purpose for the sacrifices made in the war. In short order, he recalled the first guiding belief of the Declaration: that all men are created equal. All the political compromises of the governing documents (Articles of Confederation and the Constitution) paled in comparison. He simply and succinctly stated the reason for the United States: a government of, by, and for the people, a government of individual freedom. He stated the reason for the war and the sacrifices before and after the address: to preserve the Union and that proposition that common men could govern themselves. President Lincoln cut through all the noise and defined the issue clearly and justly. We would do well to heed his words today.
In our government today and our businesses, schools, and other organizations, a clear and just vision makes all the difference for success. Most team members respond to a mission they believe in strongly. Being able to communicate that vision succinctly is a talent to be cultivated. Speaking for a long time will not disguise a lack of clear and just vision. Think clearly not only about what you do, but why you do it.
The text of the Address is posted below. I highly recommend Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson if you only read one book about the Civil War.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (Applause.) Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war; we are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this, but in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or to detract. (Applause.) The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here. (Applause.) It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. (Applause.) It is rather for us here to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain. (Applause.) That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (Long applause.)