From one brilliant president to another


The only guest post I’ve ever had, in the more than 1,100 posts I’ve put here through the years, was a tweet that Barack Obama sent out on the night he was re-elected. He went out and spoke to his supporters after sending it, but those who follow him on Twitter got to hear the news of his re-election first. As a social media dabbler, I loved that gesture.

Today’s post isn’t a guest post, per se, but it is a statement on Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address that is eloquent and very appropriate. I’ll just shut up and let anyone who hasn’t seen it take it all in.

Thanks to President Obama for capturing what Lincoln’s speech means, and how it still applies–and will always apply–to the American nation. Bravo, Mr. President!

A reason to admire Lincoln


I write about Lincoln all the time here, and there’s a reason for that. He righted this nation’s greatest wrong, and he lifted the scourge that undercut everything America claimed to stand for. He made the nation that calls itself “the land of the free” into a closer approximation of that. And if we don’t realize that, we should.

The Gettysburg Address may be the most startling evidence of Lincoln’s brilliance, but there are so many others, as well. Read one of his speeches and you’ll understand.

A Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address

Today I had some time on my hands, and a clear mission in mind. I wanted to film myself reciting the Gettysburg Address and upload it to, a once-in-a-lifetime project to record and upload Lincoln’s speech for posterity. There’s still some time to do this, as I type this out three days before the 150th anniversary of the Address on November 19.

I had wanted to film myself with Lincoln over my shoulder as I was speaking, to create an effect that he was hovering over me and somehow looking on approvingly as I was speaking his words. So I drove to a Lincoln statue located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. I’ve written about the statue before, and it seemed to be the best spot to accomplish what I wanted to do.

It was a blustery gray day in Chicago, perfect for the kind of outdoor backdrop I was looking for. From what I’ve read, the day that Lincoln delivered the address was sunny, but on a day for honoring war dead, a gray day seems more fitting. I found a parking spot, walked up to the statue, and went to work.

The statue is located at a bus stop near a busy intersection, and there were lots of people milling about, and cars were passing by. I felt a bit sheepish recording myself in front of the statue, but this was important to me and I wanted to see it through.

After a few flubbed lines and false starts, I finally got the best version I was going to get. But it had a flaw that there wasn’t any way to work around, in that a Walgreen’s store is located nearby, and the incessant bell-ringing of the Salvation Army volunteer turned up very clearly on the video. As I watched it, I realized that the bell-ringing was a dealbreaker. It was time to move on to plan B.

There’s another Lincoln statue–this one a much younger representation–a bit further north, near Senn High School. I’ve written about this statue, as well. I was on my way to that statue when a burst of inspiration hit me. I pulled off into Rosehill cemetery instead.

Not surprisingly, I’ve written about Rosehill before, too. The thought that I had was that Lincoln was speaking to honor dead soldiers at a cemetery dedication, and if I could recite Lincoln’s words against a similar backdrop, it would make it all the more authentic.

After finding a spot, and saying a silent thank you to the Civil war dead buried there, I pulled out my cellphone camera and went to work. I fumbled a little bit toward the end, but I think I captured the spirit of it. I then uploaded it to YouTube and shared the link with the learntheaddress people, and it’s being moderated before it goes live on their website. I’ll post that link when it happens, but for now the YouTube version appears above.

It was an honor and a privilege to share Lincoln’s words, and to have them recorded for posterity in a way that Lincoln’s actual speech is not. I’ll be forever glad I did this, and I’m happy to share it with the world here. It’s not the best version, I’m sure, but it’s meaningful to me, and a clear reminder of what the purpose of the speech actually was.

All things Gettysburg


I started writing this blog two and a half years ago, and I’ve mentioned the Gettysburg Address thirteen times before today. Here’s a link to all of the previous references.

I love Abraham Lincoln, and I love the Gettysburg Address. I’m not apologetic about it, either. Slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in this country that I call home, and it took all of Lincoln’s genius to bring it to an end.

We should all revere Lincoln for what he did, and to the extent that present-oriented American culture ever looks towards its past, I think we do. I honor us all for not consigning Lincoln to the scrap heap of history, where you can find every president who followed him up until Teddy Roosevelt.

Today I plan to visit at least one of the various Lincoln statues in Chicago (there are six that I know of) and record myself reciting the Gettysburg Address for When that happens, I’ll be sure to share it here, as well.


An alternate version of Lincoln’s words


Everybody knows the Gettysburg Address, or at least the version of it that appears in every history book you’ll ever see, and on the wall inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C, and in other public places as well. But I recently came upon a slightly different version of it, and I wanted to share it here.

First, some back story. Last summer I read Lincoln’s Sword, a fascinating book by historian Douglas L. Wilson. In the book, Wilson examines Lincoln’s writings and speeches as a way of explaining Lincoln’s mastery of the language, and the way he used it to shape public opinion about the war. In fact, Wilson claims that our modern understanding of the Civil War comes from what Lincoln said or wrote about it.

But there were limitations to this in the 19th century. The technology to record his words didn’t exist yet, and so any written version of a speech which Lincoln gave depends on the memory of the person who wrote the speech down. Sometimes that person gets it right, and sometimes they don’t. And there’s really no way of knowing which is which.

The first–and perhaps most jarring–example Wilson gave in his book was Lincoln’s Farewell Address in Springfield Illinois upon leaving for Washington in early 1861. Lincoln spoke off the cuff to the people who had come to see him off that morning, and it wasn’t until after the train had left that someone asked Lincoln to write down what he had said. There are several instances of where Lincoln’s words, as written, differed from what reporters and witnesses at the scene claim that he said. Lincoln wrote down what he either believed he said, or wishes he might have said, but even his written words are not necessarily the words that came out of his mouth on that occasion.

With this potential–or even a likelihood–for discrepancies between the spoken and written versions of a speech, I came across a version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that was printed in the Chicago Tribune on November 21, 1863. The version is what a Tribune reporter–who presumably was present in Gettysburg on the occasion of Lincoln’s speech–told the world that Lincoln said. None of the differences changes the meaning of the words, necessarily, but it does leave open the possibility that what Lincoln’s handwritten version of the speech said differed from the words that he spoke on the stage.

Here’s what the Tribune reported that Lincoln said:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers established upon this continent a Government subscribed in Liberty and dedicated to the fundamental principle that all mankind are created equal by a good God, and [applause] and now we are engaged in a great contest. We are contesting the question whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, so dedicated can longer remain. We are met on a great battle field of the war. We are met here to dedicate a portion of that field as the final resting place of those who have given their lives to that nation that it might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a large sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men lying dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or to detract [Great applause] The world will little heed, nor long remember, what we say here; but it will not forget what they did here [Immense Applause].

It is for us rather, the living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried forward. It is rather for us here to be dedicated the great task remaining before us; for us to renew our dedication to that cause for which they gave the full measure of their devotion. Here let us resolve that what they have done shall not have been done in vain.That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth. That the Government this people founded, by the people, shall not perish.”

This version leaves out a few of the more memorable turns of a phrase that I am used to seeing in the Gettysburg Address: For example, the phrase “The last full measure of devotion” is missing, as is “conceived in liberty” from the first sentence, and “a new birth of freedom” from the penultimate sentence appears to have been clipped in the Tribune’s version of the speech. And the last sentence, with its rhythmic “of the people, by the people, for the people” construction, was not reported by the Tribune in that way at all.

Does this mean that the idealized version of the speech, which the Union soldiers recited back to Lincoln at the beginning of the recent Spielberg movie, is inaccurate? Not necessarily. It’s entirely possible that the Tribune‘s version of the speech was not completely accurate. Again, the person who wrote this down had no way of recording Lincoln’s words for additional reference. This version is what they though they heard, and it’s possible that other newspapers printed other versions of the speech as well. But it does raise the question of whether Lincoln’s words from the stage at Gettysburg are the same ones that we are familiar with today.

Again, in the absence of a recorded version of the speech, we’re hoping that what has been written down by Lincoln is accurate. For as honest as Lincoln certainly was, we all have problems remembering exactly what we said, sometimes. The broad strokes of Lincoln’s message have undoubtedly survived intact, but there’s also a possibility–perhaps even a probability–that some of his rhetorical flourishes may have been added after the speech. Either way, it’s always going to be the most important speech in American history. And I’ve just written almost a thousand words to prove that point.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people

There’s a reason why, in a society where “that’s so last year” is a put-down, Lincoln still rings true. The man’s been dead for nearly a century and a half now, but he spoke the words, and wrote the words, that we all need to understand if we’re going to consider ourselves to be Americans.

This morning, driving north on Western Avenue in Chicago, I pulled my car over and stood at the base of a Lincoln statue. I recalled the Gettysburg Address, and the final sentence which says that “we highly resolve that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” And that hasn’t happened, then or now.

On my tiny little blog–tucked away in internet obscurity–I ask anyone who is talking about secession to consider Lincoln’s words very carefully. We just had an election, and Barack Obama won, fair and square. He got a majority of the electoral votes, and our Constitution says that’s all he needed to do. Our Constitution, as amended, also says that after he serves a second term in office, he can never be the President again. That’s the whole “by the people” part. Are you seriously suggesting that doesn’t apply anymore, simply because your guy lost the election?

In 2004, I felt the same way you did when George W. Bush was re-elected. The thought of another four years with him as the President seemed unbearable. But that’s what the will of the people was, and the four years went by. These next four years will go by, too. But the results of the last election must be upheld. To suggest otherwise is simply unAmerican.

Stop the secession talk right now, and work on making the country, or your own life, better than it is. “The people” that Lincoln was referring to at Gettysburg have already spoken.

Seven score and nine years ago


I had a few moments in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago this evening–on the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address–and so I made a modern-day pilgrimage to the Standing Lincoln statue nearby.

Lincoln’s speech is nothing less than amazing, in terms of its forceful and determined statement of what the battle meant, and the larger context of why the war was being waged. I stood at the base of the statue, looked up, and marveled at what Lincoln was able to accomplish with his words. More learned men than him have come and gone, but it’s Lincoln that we still revere. And that’s something worth celebrating on November 19 and every other day as well.

The ball in the foreground of the picture above has the text of the Gettysburg Address raised on its surface, and I read the words, as I have many times before. But reading them, in the presence of a statue dedicated in his honor, somehow felt right to me. I shut my eyes, gave thanks for the way that things turned out, and went back to my car.

With my pilgrimage accomplished, I’m already beginning to wonder what will be planned for the sesquicentennial of the address next year. I’m hoping that it will be something worthy of Lincoln and his legacy. Our ongoing fascination with Lincoln gives me reason to believe that it will.

Remembering Aaron Copland

Thirty-five years ago, roughly, I got myself into trouble. It was during music class, the once-a-week excursion outside of the classroom in the Catholic school that I attended in the 1970s, and into the music teacher’s classroom on the first floor. I’ll call the teacher Ms. F, but her full name isn’t really important to this story.

One day, as Ms. F was playing her piano and expecting us to sing along (I think I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time), some of my buddies and I were cutting up in class. We feared the nun who was our regular teacher–as we were supposed to do–but the music teacher didn’t scare us so very much. She probably ignored more of our misbehavior than she should have, but at some point she must have decided that we needed a punishment of some sort. So she told a couple of my buddies and I that we each had to write a report about Aaron Copland, who was probably the composer of the piece that she was playing for us that day.

A week went by, and I hadn’t done a thing for the report, and none of my buddies had, either. On the day that these reports were due, we all began writing reports that gave Copland credit for all sorts of amazing things. I specifically recall claiming that he had invented electricity, and the others were probably even more generous than I was. By the time we had finished out reports, Aaron Copland was just about the most accomplished man of the modern age.

I don’t remember what happened as the result of our creative academic works about Mr. Copland. We didn’t have Google back then, but it was pretty obvious that Aaron Copland hadn’t done any of the things that we gave him credit for. But today, all these years later, I read that Aaron Copland was born on this day (November 14) in 1900. So I decided to actually learn something about the man I was once sentenced to write a report on. And it turns out that I learned quite a bit.

But the single most amazing thing, which but for that long-ago punishment I would have missed out on, has a connection to Abraham Lincoln. The release of Lincoln in movie theaters has set me off on a bit of a Lincoln writing bender, so here’s still another piece about the Great Emancipator. But this one’s really good, I think.

In early 1942, when the nation was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a concert was organized by conductor Andre Kostelanetz. Copland and two other composers were commissioned to write orchestral pieces about American themes. In the early 1940s, there was no television, no pay-per-view, and really no record industry as we know it today. There were no televised benefits where viewers could call in to an 800 number and make a donation with their credit cards. It was just a concert in a place, and in this case the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was playing the music in May of 1942. The piece that Copland wrote for Kostelanetz was called Lincoln Portrait.

What made this piece so special was that it made use of Lincoln’s own words, from the Gettysburg Address and his 1862 Message to Congress, in which he stated “We cannot escape history.” It also told details from Lincoln’s personal life, in the hopes of rallying its audience, and the nation itself, to war. Almost eighty years after his death, Lincoln’s life and words served as an artistic inspiration. And, as Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are now showing us, they can still inspire us today.

Thanks to some Googling this afternoon, I was able to get the idea that Ms. F is still around, and probably living not very far from where I grew up. She probably won’t ever read this, as I’m sure that teaching music to me and my classmates is buried deep in the recesses of her memory. But thanks to her, and Google, and a composer’s name that I never forgot, I was able to learn something new and interesting today. Every day should hold such a pleasant surprise, shouldn’t it?.

It’s astounding

Lately, on the occasion of taking a run around my neighborhood, I take an iPhone along and listen to the music, to help pass those seconds and minutes when I actually am running. And the title to this post comes from the first line of The Time Warp, which is on my running playlist. I love the way the line is delivered in such a deadpan fashion, completely undermining whatever astonishment Riff Raff may have been feeling at the time. These are the sort of things that stick with me, for better or for worse.

What’s astounding to me, and what I wanted to write down in the few moments that I have available, is the subject of word counts. The average word count for what I put in this space has remained right around 500 words per post. Sometimes I go past a thousand words, and some times I don’t even reach 100. But 500 seems to be the sweet spot, as far as I can see, when it comes to making a point or holding someone’s attention.

And I compare that 500 word figure, which I could use up describing the squirrels in my backyard if I had a notion to, with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. 292 words that summed up the Civil War so perfectly that we still remember the words more than a century later. I’m going to cap this post at 292 words, recognizing that I never have, and never will, address a topic as weighty as he did back in November of 1863. I can go on for 500 words and more and say nothing, while he hit the nail on the head in under 300 words. It’s, well, as I said at the beginning of this post, it’s astounding. No other word fits better.