272 Words

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum asked a number of people to contribute a document some 272 words in length as part of an exhibit marking the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The invitees included Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Stephen Spielberg, Julian Bond, and Nikki Giovanni, to name a few well-known names, as well as a number of lesser-known people … including me.

As the instructions put it:

If you wish to participate, we ask that you write on one of three topics:  1) Abraham Lincoln, 2) Gettysburg/Gettysburg Address or 3) any cause-related topic which inspires your passion. In the Lincoln tradition, you must express yourself in only “272 Words” — no more, no less.

Here’s what one well-known Lincoln scholar sent.

So this is what I sent:

Seven score and ten years ago a tall gaunt figure rose on an autumn afternoon to help dedicate the final resting place of Americans who had fought and died so that their nation—and all that it stood for—might live. As his words echoed across the freshly-dug graves of those who had given the last full measure of devotion to that cause, he reaffirmed his commitment to continue the struggle so that those men would not have died in vain.

We today still remember those words and the man who spoke them. We have never forgotten what he said there on a battlefield of that war. But we must rededicate ourselves to rising to the challenge of meeting the great task remaining before us. Otherwise, those men will have died in vain for a cause that we failed to sustain.

We today must remind ourselves that the struggle continues long after those guns fell silent. If the blood shed during four years of terrible war was necessary to secure a new birth of freedom, achieving the promise of that freedom remains our unfinished work. It is not enough to pledge ourselves to ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth. We must remain dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal, and we must renew our commitment to realizing that equality is essential to realize fully for all the liberty and freedom we seek to preserve and protect. Let us embrace that proposition completely so that we can be as good as his word and be true to ourselves.

Different strokes for different folks …

How would you respond to this assignment? What would you say?

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14 thoughts on “272 Words

  1. I am deeply touched. Did you write this, Brooks? I think I have told in a post that I had to learn the Gettysburg Address in high school. Can you imagine that-in a small school in a small southern town just a few miles north of Richmond? I am glad I had to learn it. Can’t begin to recite it now. That was one great school.

  2. I think the last paragraph needs some work. Here’s what I’d say about it.

    The struggle to ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth can never end. Each generation must take it up again for a new time and circumstance. Our brave men, living and dead, now consecrate the grounds of other nations and the ability to defend our freedoms against external threat is unquestioned. Because of this we enjoy the friendship of other constitutional governments that are now common, as the once disputed understanding of human equality is now established among free nations. Yet it remains to be determined in every era what freedom means. Therefore after having established once tenuous things, whether we have the ability to keep a government of the people, by the people, for the people is in question when the ability of the common man to govern is now questioned, and an increasing number of citizens who’ve only known peace and safety are in danger of failing to understand the price of freedom because of the success in sacrifice by those who are giving the last full measure.

    Therefore the question before us is neither our dedication nor commitment to the proposition that all men are created equal, but rather whether or not we falter and lose our freedoms, by destroying ourselves.

  3. I wasn’t trying to hit 272 and only modified the later part of Brook’s statement. A lot of Lincoln speeches made the Gettysburg Address possible, such as Cooper Union. It was said to be “devoid of all rhetorical imagery” and “constructed with a view to accuracy of statement, simplicity of language, and unity of thought. In some respects like a lawyer’s brief.”

    It is inconceivable that if Lincoln rose from the grave that he would be happy with the glorification of his speech removed from the framework he painstakingly set out previously. You might as well trot out some sappy “Continue the struggle” or “Keep the faith” phrase if you’re going to turn the Gettysburg Address into a platitude pointing towards an unclear political message. In that case, any more than three words are superfluous.

  4. Pingback: My 272 Words | Student of the American Civil War

  5. Thank you reminding us that words from the past, no matter how eloquent and powerful, only have real meaning if we affirm them and act on them in the present.

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