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Ted Stillwell: Great speakers can stir the soul

Staff Writer
The Examiner
The Examiner

Among the famed orators whose voices resound across American history – Johnathon Edwards, Daniel Webster and William Jennings Bryant – two call out loudly to us today: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered in 1863 in the midst of the terrible Civil War, and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in the midst of the tumultuous civil rights struggles a century later, have an almost mythic hold on us. What King said to us 57 years ago and Lincoln said to us 157 years ago remain relevant and strike a vibrant chord because they raised rhetoric to the level of literature.

Literary historians have found in these two speeches a kind of poetry. Neither speaker rhymed his lines nor stuck to strict meter, but both employed many other means that poets use to move the heart and startle the mind. Recite out loud Lincoln’s famed opening: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation …” Here in less than a sentence Lincoln used the internal rhyme of “four score” and alliterative f’s, s’s and n’s, to develop a swelling cadence. Consider also King’s admonition: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” Here are emphatic images couched in contrasting metaphors.

We know these speeches best by their refrains. “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said, and added that ours is “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” King dramatically reiterated “I have a dream” and constructed his speech’s ending on the repeated phrase “Let freedom ring.”

Each speaker’s argument moved through cumulative parallel, cadenced constructions to an impassioned climax. Both orators employed the power of poetry to make audiences not just hear but feel what they felt.

For this, they had a common source. Though each knew some conventional poems, and Lincoln even wrote at least one, the Christian Bible served them both as a model of poetic power. Lincoln knew the Bible well. King, whose speech drew literally from the prophets Amos, Isaiah and Daniel, was a minister and the son of a minister. He inherited well an emotive preaching tradition.

The opening of King’s speech – five score years ago – echoed Lincoln’s, and King directly invoked his memory. But more important, both King and Lincoln alluded in their addresses to the Declaration of Independence, quoting its axion that all men are created equal.

Lincoln’s speech: “Four score 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.”

And, “ … 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.”

King’s speech: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”

And, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exhalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

Reference: American History magazine.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.

Ted Stillwell