The Wide Margin: When Less is More

On the nineteenth day of the eleventh month of the year four score and seven after the founding the Nation, Abraham Lincoln delivered his über-nano Gettysburg Address.  Just how short was this speech?  272 total words arranged in only 10 sentences.  That is to say, 143 different words.  Just how few words is that?

Matthew Brady photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg

The Cat in the Hat contains 236 different words.

That’s right: Dr. Seuss required 65% more words to describe anarchy than Abraham Lincoln did to describe unity.

Lincoln’s speech was so short that Matthew Brady couldn’t even get his iPhone to finish booting before the speech ended.  That’s why our photographic record of the event is the moral equivalent of a “Where’s Waldo?” – without even the benefit of a red-and-white striped shirt.

Today we live in a world where someone writes a book and you no longer ask how long it is, you ask how much it weighs.  I have no desire to pick up Infinite Jest, for example.  It’s not that I find it intimidating – if you want intimidating, go try to use Feynman diagrams to calculate the Green’s functions required to dress the electron in a Fermi surface that involves Cooper pairs – it’s just that I have better things to do with my finite time on the planet.

Lincoln wasn’t writing to be read, of course.  He wrote a speech; something to be performed.  The guy that spoke before him, Edward Everett, was really considered the main event of the day and weighed in at 13,607 words over a 2 hour period.  The audience expected this.  In a time before the constant assault of a 24/7 electronic media, people came to events like this to actually hear the speakers.  Much like Shakespeare’s plays were long affairs because how the hell else were you going to entertain yourself after a bit of bear-baiting?

The occasion was a heavy one, to be sure.  Only four months before, 51,112 men died at Gettysburg; 1 out of every 3 that fought.  To get our heads wrapped around these numbers, consider them in terms of the total US population.  Translated to our time, the equivalent battle today would be waged between two armies with a combined size of 1.5 million men – the size of Philadelphia – and leave 500,000 dead.

Imagine a President today – or anyone – commenting on 500,000 dead.  In a single battle.

Exactly what does one say about such a thing?

There’s nothing that can be said.  Nothing at all.  And while intuitively we know this, there’s still the impulse to fill that awful silence.  To heap word upon word as if to build a cacophonous berm from which to hide behind.

Through packets of compressed carnage telegraphed daily to the War Department, Lincoln watched the Nation viciously tear at itself.  There was neither retreat nor respite from this barrage.   It takes a significant effort to write tightly, and in cadence to boot.  The President was no less a genius as a writer than as a politician.  His 10 sentences were interrupted by applause a staggering 5 times, not counting the extended applause when he was finished.

In brevity, Lincoln repurposed the War and, in brevity, Lincoln repurposed the Nation.  The power of unity is a running theme in Lincoln’s political writings but it was never so well expressed as in this transcendent speech of just 143 different words.

Abraham Lincoln's handwritten first draft of the Gettysburg Address

Second Page of Original Draft of Gettysburg Address

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