I stand in a museum in Gettysburg. As I enter the room called, “The Gettysburg Address,” I feel more solemn than I expect. A simple room–nothing elaborate or majestic–painted in muted browns displays the words of that historic address. 10 sentences, less than 250 words. I examine Lincoln’s handwriting, noting his style. How could so few words create a cultural moment so powerful? How could this conglomeration of verbs, dashes, and words puzzled into a graveyard address change the course of history?
The document amazes me. Lincoln uses the address to challenge and inspire us to press on in our own legacy-making, our own freedom-fighting, our own responsible citizenship so those honored dead “shall not have died in vain.” It’s a speech so deeply embedded in the past (four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent), but so simultaneously lodged in a future Lincoln could not yet see (that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom). That double vision is what the study of history so often offers.
As I turn from the wall displaying the text of the Gettysburg Address, I face an opposing wall of quotations others have made at the time of Lincoln’s speech. It’s difficult to see with this cell phone photo, but these quotes refer to the short speech as a bunch of “silly remarks.” One newspaper says that “every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat. . . remarks.” Another comment claims that Lincoln’s remarks will “no more be repeated or thought of” in American history.
I take a picture. I laugh at the irony. There will always be haters. There will always be opposition to the good, the noble, and the true. Perhaps the amount of criticism directly correlates to how good, noble, and true a thing is.
Living with flair means we move on in our legacy-making and our freedom-fighting despite opposition. What others claim is “dull and commonplace” just might change a nation’s history.