Not a Total Failure
The man stretched his lanky frame out on the bed and noted with a wry smile that, as usual, his feet hung off the end. He looked around the bedroom and took in the cozy furnishings. It was peaceful here in David Wills’ home; he was thankful he hadn’t had to stay at the town’s inn.
He was tired, so very tired. The train ride to this small town had not been a restful one, with reporters and staff constantly surrounding him and talking, endlessly talking. What a relief to have this time alone to think, pray and put the finishing touches on his speech for tomorrow’s ceremony.
After dozing a few minutes, he got up and dug around in his satchel for his speech. He stared at the words he’d written on the stationery and frowned. It just wasn’t enough, it wasn’t right – only ten sentences. Well, Wills had requested just “a few appropriate remarks”. Yet, he wondered … how does one give meaning to the sacrifice of the dead and inspire the living in ten short sentences. He sighed. It cannot be done.
He crossed out one sentence and scribbled another in its place, one that included several “cannots”. That was better. Scanning the length of the speech, his eyes picked out words that were a small attempt at giving hope – life-giving words like conceived, live, birth, and shall not perish. Yes. That was what he wanted to impart to the friends and family of those who had died – life. But words were such small consolation, so very inadequate.
The weary man read the speech one last time, wrote a final draft, washed his face and beard in the washstand and crawled into bed. Tomorrow would not be easy. He needed his rest.
The next morning, November 19th, found the man riding astride a chestnut bay horse, surrounded by dignitaries, townsfolk, widows and children. So many people! He shivered slightly and shifted in his saddle. At least he wasn’t the main speaker for today’s ceremony, which settled his nerves a bit. Thankfully, Edward Everett was going to deliver the main address. He was a magnificent orator, a wise choice for such important proceedings.
As they approached the grounds, the man’s throat clenched when he saw the tombstones, the open graves and most disturbingly, the decaying bodies lying side by side in the distance, waiting to be transferred from the field to the cemetery. There must be thousands, he thought. So many, too many. America’s sons, fathers, brothers…had it been worth it, this sacrifice? The words he’d written just yesterday echoed in his mind, “the world will…never forget what they did here.” He would never forget what he saw here. He would remember their sacrifice, he would.
The program began with music by Birgfield’s Band, a prayer by the Reverend Stockton, then a song by the Marine Band. Edward Everett was introduced, stood behind the podium and delivered a two-hour speech, which earned a rousing applause from the thousands in the audience. More music, and finally David Wills invited his houseguest to share a few dedicatory remarks.
The man’s eyes swept through the crowd. His speech suddenly felt so small. He silently prayed, “God, may my words give honor to the men in these graves, and hope to these remaining.”
He opened his mouth and began, “Fourscore and seven years ago….”
His voice was strong, infused with a confidence that was not his own, a determination that had carried him through all the storm and conflict of the last few years. He knew in that moment that this speech had not come from clever construction of a few words, but from the heart of a God who loved this nation.
“…shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln was finished. It had been but two or three minutes, and an awkward silence covered the grounds. Folks looked at one other and finally began clapping, a polite spattered applause. The President folded his speech, slipped it into his coat pocket and sat down.
Upon his return to Washington D.C., Lincoln received a letter from Edward Everett in which he praised, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."
Lincoln responded that he was glad to know the speech was not a "total failure".
Not a total failure, indeed.
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