One Hundred and Fifty years ago on November 19, 1863, a wiry US President delivered an oration to dedicate a cemetery in honor of soldiers slain at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during the American civil war (1861-1865). He jotted down notes for the speech on the back of an envelope while on a train ride from Washington DC to Pennsylvania the previous day. Later in the evening, the American President retired to his room to put the finishing touches on his speech.
The following afternoon, President Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by coffins of fallen soldiers and wounded fighters and thousands of onlookers including relations of the dead, made the presentation of what has come to be known as The Gettysburg Address. He was meant to give “dedicatory remarks” secondary to those of the main speaker Professor Edward Everett, the national orator of formidable credentials.
Indeed Everett spoke earlier, offering a two-hour speech, followed by Lincoln whose dirge-272 words (about a third or quarter of this article) – lasted nearly three minutes. The crowd appeared not to appreciate their president’s delivery, for they gave him what a historian has described as “perfunctory applause”.
But a humble Professor Everett did. He told Lincoln: “My speech will soon be forgotten; yours will never be. How gladly would I exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines”.
It has turned out prophetically true. For through the ages down to our day, what started as a mere community speech has since broken the barriers of time, color, culture and language to become a timeless and gargantuan prose better appreciated for its nobility elegance and poetry.
Greater respect is compelled when we realize that Lincoln gave the address from a grieving soul to even more grieving souls. How could living words that would later survive the ravages of the ages come from the depth of death? There was the stark reality of sorrow inflicted by war. And in this case the battle of Gettysburg was recorded to have been one of the bloodiest of the US civil war. 7000 were killed and 44000 wounded or missing. Historians claim that Gettysburg was the turning point indeed of the war.
Somehow, Lincoln, a man forged out of a cauldron of serial defeats, disappointments and rejection, drew appropriate lessons from the seeming desolation around him. He recognized for instance that man can only manage calamity (or what seems so) not by pandering to it or evoking and reproducing more vision of such dreary conditions.
It wasn’t a time for a long sermonizing speech. Nor was it a moment to shun talk altogether. He needed to face the locals and comfort the bereaved families of Gettysburg and turn individual and collective losses into first a national hope and secondly a universal legacy.
The Gettysburg Address achieved precisely these objectives. How did Lincoln succeed? The literary technique combining with his stoical discipline performed the main magic. He avoided overtly lugubrious epithets. He never interjected the speech with any personal connections.
Where he came to it the speaker adopted the use of the majestic “we”, “us” or “our”.
He won the hearts of the bereaved and the nation when he cautioned that although he and the others had gathered to honor the dead, “in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we can not consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.”
Lincoln added: “The brave men living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus nobly advanced.”
Great noble thoughts and vision captured in equally sublime prose! Lincoln ended the day a fulfilled leader: he had used powerful language and personal discipline to soothe the souls of bruised, disconsolate citizens. He had also proved that when a nation is passing through tormenting moments such as Nigeria is witnessing now, it can be succored by leaders who take the time to make statements that inspire the citizens and transform the situation into a vision of hope.
Only leaders and statesmen of Spartan disposition unencumbered by a craving for material wealth, inordinate power and women-mongering would possess the rigor, discipline and conviction so amply displayed in the Gettysburg Address.
The appropriate lesson for Nigeria and her leaders to learn from Gettysburg is that we must appreciate the fact that it is the “brave (toiling) men, and (women) living and dead, who struggled… (Who) have really sustained the polity thus far and that it is “far above (the) poor power” of the politicians to “add or detract” from their contribution. The key that unlocked the patriotic treasure box of the people and the benevolence history is according Lincoln and his address was Lincoln’s respect for the role of the downtrodden, the deprived, in nation-building. He celebrated them in exalted poetic prose that reflected a life long commitment to the dignity of labor. Only a humble leader, dedicated to selfless service and given to purpose and vision, can bring himself (herself) to generate ideas that inspire.
Where the leader lacks these gems of integrity his/her homilies and perorations will be nothing but stuff nursing mothers apply to put infants to sleep!
Obafemi and Ojewale are promoters of Leadership Search Initiative, Lagos.