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Lincoln's Gettysburg address remains a masterclass in copywriting – even though its true sentiment has long been forgotten

By Lewis Blackwell |

November 21, 2013 | 6 min read

Have you marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address? Perhaps the occasion has given you the chance to do your party piece of reciting from memory Abraham Lincoln's classic speech of just 10 sharp sentences.

These words commemorated those fallen in battle while setting down the great principles to guide a nation. They are supposed to have rallied the Republican troops and the wider cause in the grim middle of the American Civil War.

And then again, perhaps you haven't a clue what I am talking about. In my limited market research – using a sample base of two female Caucasians in north London – I encountered one degree-educated twenty-something who had scarcely heard of Abraham Lincoln, let alone his most famous speech, while the other participant, postgraduate-educated and middle-aged, struggled to recall what the address was about despite having enjoyed seeing Daniel Day-Lewis deliver it in Spielberg's blockbuster of last year. At this point you might want to glance to the bottom and refresh your memory*.

It is 150 years since Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address

Major media have been telling us of its importance for days. Furthermore, president Obama has been inspired to pen and publish a mirrored text of similar brevity, if not of similar import. It must have been a quiet night in at the White House as the president sucked his pencil, and consulted his re-write team, while pondering how to match up to such an august original.

Ah, 'original'. Slight problem there. A little probing and it turns out that nobody can quite agree on what were precisely the pithy words of Lincoln's masterpiece.

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Newspapers at the time published different reports, along with disputing where exactly he stood when he gave it (and some of them also said the speech was a bit crap). Even versions in Lincoln's own handwriting vary. He endorsed a text written much later as being a definitive one (the Bliss version, below), but it's likely he was being a good editor after the event. It's human to tinker, and Lincoln's greatness and tragedy was that he was definitely very human.

So for all the celebration, we don't precisely know what it is we are marking. But which ever version you read, they're all pretty damn good. They are a masterclass in mass-communication. Ambitious while remaining accessible, finely written and yet robustly springy with the rhythms of dramatic speech, challenging and consoling, direct and directive. They engage the emotional while being reasoned and seemingly reasonable.

Whether you are writing a political speech or an ad for nappies, there's much to learn from it. But I fear the celebrations of the past few days can only be truly heartfelt by copywriters and other indulgent lovers of fine, powerful writing. We have to be blinkered admirers of the art of communication rather than observant of the outcome.

While the Republicans won they are now associated with the Tea Party, with notions of liberty that are anathema for liberals. The fact is that Lincoln got shot and there remains large swathes of the USA where his principles and his words never really found favour, where the Confederate flag and the tastes of its followers may prevail given half a chance. And let's not begin to detail all those parts of the world where the 'new birth of freedom' takes place under the virtual cosh of American drones. 'Government of the people, by the people, for the people?' Time to call in the Advertising Standards Authority.

But let's not put a downer on the celebrations. Let's hope the copywriting class of tomorrow can still crack out a fine line to help commerce, or a needy politician, turn Lincoln's wonderful rhetoric to their worldly advantage.

*The Bliss version of Lincoln's Gettysburg address

'Four score and seven years ago 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. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. 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 far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'

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