The Last Full Measure
Memorial Day, the unofficial first day of summer, is when we pause to remember those who, in Mr. Lincoln’s words, gave the last full measure of devotion to defend America in combat.
And let’s be clear: Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address, from which that great phrase comes, on the back of an envelope on the train from Washington, D.C. to that small town in Pennsylvania. As Abraham Lincoln Online notes, “Lincoln carefully prepared his major speeches in advance; his steady, even script in every manuscript is consistent with a firm writing surface . . .” He was too thoughtful a man and too careful a writer to work in any other way.
I suspect the legend of the president dashing off the speech as he made his way to dedicate the cemetery at Gettysburg derives from the speech’s brevity: just 275 words – 279 if “cannot” is written, as Mr. Lincoln did in its three uses, as two words.
When I was a kid in elementary school, we memorized the speech. We studied it. It taught us a great deal about rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing in such a way that your words have power and clarity. Indeed, power comes from clarity.