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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
27. President Lincoln
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

I have not in my letters to you travelled beyond our own islands in search of great English prose, but I propose now to make one divergence from this rule and quote a very great and deservedly far-famed speech, uttered on a memorable occasion, of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.

At the present time, I think, the name of Lincoln lies closer to the hearts of the American people than that of any other, not even excepting Washington and Hamilton. The latter, though they established American independence, remained in a personal sense English gentlemen till their death. Lincoln was born in the backwoods in rude poverty, received no education but what he acquired by his own unaided efforts, and lived and died a man of the people, the ideal type of native-born American.

He rose from the lowest to the highest position in the State, borne upwards by the simple nobility of his character, by the stainless purity of his actions, and the splendid motive of all his endeavours. His speeches and writings derive their power and distinction from no tricks of oratory, felicity of diction, or nimbleness of mind. They are the vocal results of the beatings of his great heart.

He led his people to war in the manner of a prophet of Israel; with an awful austerity, majestic, invincible, and with hand uplifted in sure appeal to the God of battles. On the field of Gettysburg, where was waged the most tremendous of all combats of the war, he came to dedicate a cemetery to the innumerable dead, and these were his few and noble words:—
"Fourscore-and-seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add of 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 honoured 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, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Few are the opportunities in the history of the world when the time, the place, the occasion, and the words spoken, have combined so poignantly to move the hearts of men.

One can imagine the vast concourse standing awestruck and uncovered before the solemn splendour of this noble dedication, every phrase of which will remain for generations a treasured and sacred memory in countless thousands of homes of the great continent in the West.

Your loving old
G.P.

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