(American Conservative) — Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has achieved a status as American Scripture equaled only by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address. In merely 271 words, the wartime president fused his epoch’s most powerful and disruptive tendencies—nationalism, democratism, and German idealism—into a civil religion indebted to the language of Christianity but devoid of its content.

That the Gettysburg Address achieves so much in so little space has a lot to do with what Lincoln didn’t say on that November day in 1863. An odd vacancy runs through the speech. Pronouns without antecedents carried Lincoln’s words away from the things he was supposedly talking about. The speech was abstracted from the place where he stood and the suffering he memorialized. Lincoln mentioned “a great battle-field” but not the town and surrounding farms of Gettysburg. He invoked the “fathers” but left them unnamed. He extolled the “proposition that all men are created equal” but left the Declaration of Independence implied.

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