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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Greatest Presidential Speech of All Time

I have been, for over twenty years, entirely persuaded by Garry Wills's argument: that the Gettysburg Address, given by Abraham Lincoln on this day, exactly 150 years ago, was the great catalyzing rhetorical act in the--probably inevitable--transformation of the United States's imagination of itself from a localized republican culture which accepted diverse, and unequal, communities, to a nationalized republican one which demanded the equal treatment of all its individual members. One could argue that ever since the Civil War, ever since Gettysburg, we've just been working out the details, not changing our minds. In that sense, Lincoln's short speech was, by far, the most consequential and important ever given by a U.S. president: more than Washington's Farewell Address, more than Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, more than Reagan's First Inaugural, and more than Obama's More Perfect Union speech (man, whatever happened to that guy?). Those rhetorical acts were about telling us what we needed to do or not do, given what we are; Lincoln's defined what we are, for better and/or for worse. That it remains, a century and a half on, also a remarkably well-crafted and powerfully succinct speech only adds to its power.

Thanks to Ken Burns for putting this together (though I would have preferred more George H.W. Bush, and less Taylor Swift).

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