As 19th century oratory, the Gettysburg Address was a failure. Lincoln himself said so as the weak and scattered applause subsided. But when printed on the front page of papers all across the North, it was a gem. Perfect. Poetic. Memorized and recited by everyone from politicians to preachers to schoolchildren to soldiers. It still is.
Lincoln read scores, perhaps even hundreds, of telegrams everyday. Indeed, his campaign in 1860 was the first American presidential campaign essentially run by wire, and the Civil War he found himself leading was the first war run by telegrams too. Lincoln composed wires all day long that were sent to military and administrative and political leaders across the span of the continent. A telegram’s prose, compared with handwritten letters, was spare and urgent, the rhythms terse and staccato, the words in the dozens, a couple hundred at most. Points were made succinctly, a series of quick images and at their best they squeezed ten thousand words into a hundred. Lincoln experimented with these new composition ideas as the presidential train rolled towards Gettysburg, you can see it in the drafts. He’s trying to say as much as possible in as little as possible. When he took the podium it was a couple months after the battle, the smell of death still emanating from the thousands of graves. Four score and seven years ago, he began, ending it 272 words later with shall not perish from the earth. It was short, to the point, and disappointing to most of those in attendance. Stem winding speeches were an afternoon’s entertainment in that era. But to those who were not in the audience and would read and not hear his words, Lincoln had changed American literature forever. Maybe no one realized it then. But in England the kids memorized Shakespeare, but here they memorized the Gettysburg Address.