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Shelter Island Reporter editorial: The last full measure of devotion

No, he didn’t write the speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride from Washington to Gettysburg that November in 1863.

In fact, Lincoln began writing the Gettysburg Address in July, not long after the battle that was the turning point in the Civil War.

Historians have looked at books Lincoln borrowed from the Library of Congress specifically for his speech to commemorate the battlefield where more than 50,000 soldiers became casualties over three days of fighting. Most prominent was his study of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, where the ancient Greek linked democracy with sacrifice.

Lincoln spoke for about two minutes at the cemetery, using only 272 words. He had followed one of the great orators of the day, Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours.

But Everett wasn’t a puffed-up narcissist, he was only doing his duty and giving the crowd what they wanted. Public speeches, in those days, were the blockbuster at the Cineplex. It’s why people turned out and packed a lunch, to hear the words and admire the stamina, rhetoric and lungs of the speaker.

Many people were puzzled at Lincoln’s two minutes. Photographers didn’t even have time to set up. Some in the crowd were upset — they didn’t get their money’s worth.

But not Edward Everett, who recognized genius when he saw and heard it. “I should be glad,” he told Lincoln, “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.”

It’s amazing to think that most politicians are incapable of giving a coherent speech these days, let alone writing one, as Lincoln did, for the ages.

And it’s fitting that the most famous speech in American history should eulogize those killed in battle, and point toward why they sacrificed their lives for a cause to which “they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Lincoln spoke of the founding of the Republic, a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

And asked his listeners — and the millions who came after him, including those school children now reading his words — to realize there is unfinished work. He called on everyone “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … and 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.”

We’re lucky that Shelter Island hasn’t forgotten what Memorial Day signifies.

Come to the parade on Monday and enjoy the beginning of summer with a free barbecue provided by the Lions Club at Legion Hall.

Remember all who died in uniform, and remember their families, who carry on bravely without them.