My daughter’s elementary school has an interesting plaque on the wall. The school was built in 1902, and it’s still in use today. For a building that’s well over 100 years old, it’s holding up remarkably well. Schools don’t seem to be built like that anymore.
What makes this plaque so interesting is that, even though it’s no more that 12 inches across and 6 or 7 inches high, it contains the entire text of what could be the greatest speech ever, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Books have been written about this speech, and they are much more insightful about it than I could ever be.
The fact that Lincoln’s speech can be entirely transcribed onto a plaque about the size of an iPad is very impressive. But the fact that this plaque has sat in the same spot on a wall, just above a staircase, for more a century is remarkable in its own right.
According to the verbiage at the bottom of the plaque, it was presented by the citizens of Chicago upon the centennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909. More than one hundred years later, I wonder how many parents, students, teachers, and visitors of any sort have passed beneath that plaque. At least a few have probably stopped to read it, or reflect on its meaning, or at least wonder why it was put there in the first place.
Anyone who had anything to do with that plaque’s creation is almost certainly dead. Likewise, it’s fair to say that none of the students who attended that school in 1909 are around anymore. And yet, on the walls of a public elementary school in Chicago–and probably in a thousand other places, as well–the words that Lincoln gave to the nation still live on.
There aren’t any recorded copies of Lincoln’s address, nor are there even any recorded samples of his own voice. And that’s probably a good thing, since Lincoln is said to have had a high-pitched voice that wouldn’t come off so well on television. If we give any thought to the sound of his voice, we falsely imagine it to be as rich and majestic as the Lincoln Monument itself. But we’ll never know for sure just how he sounded, in November of 1863 or on any other day. For Lincoln’s sake and ours, that’s for the best.
We have all seen Lincoln’s face in the photographs that were taken during his lifetime, but there’s just one still photo of Lincoln known to exist at Gettysburg. In today’s media world, Lincoln’s every word and movement could be broadcast live on a cable news channel, or streamed on a web page, or perhaps even uploaded onto YouTube. But this wasn’t the case back in 1863.
Lincoln’s remarks weren’t even what the audience in Gettysburg had come to hear. Instead, they came to listen to Edward Everett, who was known for the eloquence of his oratory. For more than two hours, Everett addressed the assembled throng. After he had finished, Lincoln stood up, without an introduction, and cut right to the heart of the matter at hand in Gettysburg. And then he sat down, before anyone expected he would.
The crowd had scarcely finished processing what Everett had said, when Lincoln uncorked a speech for the ages. Everett later claimed that Lincoln’s speech said more in two minutes than his own speech did in two hours. Consider how refreshing that must have been to the crowd that had heard it. Or how frustrating it must have been for those who missed it. And at just ten sentences and 282 words, it would have been an easy speech to miss. It’s a good thing that it’s now preserved on a wall–among other places–for everyone to read and consider.