The greatest words any American ever said were spoken by a gaunt, war-haunted man in a tiny Pennsylvania college town 150 years ago Tuesday.
The celebrated orator Edward Everett had spoken first, a gusty address that began with a nod toward “this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year,” and wheezed to a close two hours later with a reference to “the glorious annals of our common country.” One imagines a sonorous baritone, the “r’s” rolling like carriage wheels.
When it was his turn, Abraham Lincoln stood in that cemetery in Gettysburg, a town whose walls were still pitted with bullet holes from the great battle four months before and whose heart was still scarred with the memory of bodies lying twisted, bloated and mangled in the rain. “Four score and seven years ago,” he said in that high, piping twang, “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
In a speech lasting just two minutes, he grappled with the challenge of defining America.
It is noteworthy that the second greatest thing any American ever said echoed the first. Standing at Lincoln’s shrine a century later, Martin Luther King noted his “symbolic shadow” and his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation “five score years ago.” And when he said, “I have a dream,” the first dream King articulated was that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Of course, the need to define America outlived Lincoln. And for that matter, King.