“Without history there’s no hope.”
Below is a transcript I’ve put together of the speech Spielberg gave at the official celebration of the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Spielberg’s speech is a powerful defence of history, historical film-making and dreaming. It is a very Spielbergian piece of oration, and perhaps the greatest speech I’ve seen him deliver.
“I’ve never stood any place on earth where it’s easier to be humble than here. Gettysburg. Delivering an address. Humble hardly covers it.
“It’s not just that I’m standing near where Lincoln stood when he delivered what many people, myself included, consider the most perfect prose poem ever penned by an American. It’s not just that I’m speaking where Lincoln uttered words that helped change the course of American history by changing how we understand ourselves and the whole point of American democracy.
“I agree with those who read the Gettysburg Address this way: that Lincoln wanted us to understand that equality was a - small d - democratic essential, perhaps the democratic essential.
“Lincoln in the address delivered here wanted his fellow citizens to understand that equality was the proposition that the Civil War was meant to test. That’s reason enough to feel very humble, as I do, speaking to you here. But it’s not the only reason.
“Gettysburg is, of course, a battlefield and a cemetery in which the soldiers who died in the service of our country are buried. Their sacrifice, of nearly 150 years ago, was so complete and so completely essential, that time, as Lincoln predicted, hasn’t managed to erase it from memory.
“The name of this place still resonates with a shuddering in the hearts of the American people. More than any other name connected with the Civil War, except Lincoln’s, Gettysburg reverberates. Americans retain the knowledge that what happened here was the crux of our terrible national trial and even Americans who aren’t sure precisely what transpired on these fields know that all the glory and all the tragedy associated with the Civil War resides most palpably, most indelibly, here.
“The reason for this concentration of heartbreak and heroism in a geographical location is simple, and Lincoln told us what it was that day, when he found his best and his truest voice: It’s the courage, the selflessness, the strength, endurance, heroism and the sacrifice of the patriots who are buried here – most of them terribly young men, men no older than my three sons. It’s the memory of those honored dead, those in their graves, and those who have never been found that brings all of America, always, back to Gettysburg.
“And it’s in the face of their courage and sacrifice, and courage displayed and sacrifices made in war after war since July 1863 to this very day by the men and women in the armed forces of the United States, that I feel the deepest humility which is only another way of saying the very deepest gratitude to the citizen soldiers of the United States.
“These citizen soldiers who battled here were defending something other than boundaries, territories or properties, something other than religious belief, cultural tradition and national identity. Lincoln contends that they gave the last full measure of devotion to defend a proposition about government, of how we choose to live together, starting with liberty and moving to equality, and whether the contract we make with one another, based on liberty and equality, is practical, whether it will work, mechanically work, whether this idea of government can function on the earth we inhabit.
“And that’s one reason I keep saying ‘here’ in this address, ‘here’. It happened right here, on the ground all of you are standing on, the solemn earth all of us inhabit. These citizen soldiers fighting for the union died testing that proposition that democracy can work not in the hands of angels, nor even to borrow from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in the hands of the better angels of our nature, but in the sometimes clumsy, sometimes bloody error-prone hands of the ordinary people we are.
“On this sacred testing and proving ground, people willingly died to prove that people live together better if they refuse to oppress each other. To prove, in other words, that democracy works.
“I’m here also awestruck each time I visit Gettysburg to be in the presence of Lincoln’s still-eloquent ghost. And to be honest, I’ve been keeping company with that eloquent ghost on and off for the last ten years, spent preparing constantly for the last two years, devoted around the clock to making Lincoln, and even if this is merely an illusion, or testament to the enduring force of his legacy, like most people who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Abraham Lincoln, he has come to feel like one of my oldest and one of my dearest friends. I imagine I’m talking to many people who feel the same way. I’m luckier in one sense than nearly all of you, in one sense – I have Daniel Day-Lewis’ phone number in my speed dial. And if I start to really miss him terribly, I can just call him up and ask him to tell me a story. I haven’t done this. I have no idea what Daniel would think of me if I did. He’d probably change his number and I think that’s certainly what Lincoln would have done if he’d had a cellphone.
“But an important component of humility is gratitude which I feel today in abundance, addressing all of you today in this audience, which includes a number of serious scholars, not to mention a healthy percentage of the country’s entire population of Lincoln obsessives - a population I, and all the brilliant artists who made this film with me, have happily joined. We are all Lincoln obsessives now together with you, and we’re diligent among us with our book after Lincoln book.
“But we are film-makers. We are not scholars and we are not historians, but we are deeply indebted to those of you who are. And I’ve made no secret of how indebted I am to one historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who gave me, my screenwriter Tony Kushner, my lead actor, and everyone who worked on Lincoln, a luminous and shrewd and magnificently constructed account of the man.
“We owe a great deal to Harold Holder and James McPherson, who led Daniel and me on an unforgettable tour of Gettysburg only a year ago, and Harold and Jim served as historical consultants on our film, from the very beginning of the process, seven years ago. Their contributions were invaluable.
“And there’s many other stories of Lincoln and the Civil War in America to whose work I owe an unpayable debt. You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction. Using the connective tissue of cause and effect, gathering evidence, categorising, analysing and interpreting. You constructed the narratives that we turn to, that all of us turn to - film-makers and teachers and doctors and businesspeople and politicians. All of us, we turn to historians. We turn the pages of your diligently reconstructed narratives, as we struggle to form our collective memories of all that has passed, all that which shapes our present life and will shape the future we’re forever in the process of entering.
“Nothing matters more than memory. Without memory we learn nothing, without memory there’s no coherence, no progress. I’d image that’s why historians ultimately write history and why human beings hunger for history and, I have to add, for fiction based on history. It’s the hunger we feel for coherence, it’s the hunger we feel for progress for a better world. And it’s much the same hunger, in other words, that compels soldiers in a just war to fight - the hunger for justice. Because I think justice and memory are inseparable. Without remembering what has happened, what went wrong, what went right, the blessings that justice brings - dignity, real prosperity, individual and social health, peace - these blessings will not and cannot arrive. History lights a path towards justice, so without history there’s no hope.
“But even with history that’s as scrutinised as that of the American Civil War, some aspects, certain details, are gone forever. We can’t remember everything. History forces us to acknowledge the limits of memory. It keeps track of memory’s victories, it keeps track of memory’s defeats. It tells us that memory is imperfect, that no matter how much of the past we’ve recovered, much of what once was or has been, now is lost to us. It’s simply not the job - in fact, I believe it’s the betrayal of the job of a historian - to promise perfect and complete recall of the past and to promise memory that abolishes loss.
“One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that other disciplines such as history must avoid. To art, we enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us, to bring the dead back to life. This resurrection is, of course, just an illusion, it’s a fantasy, a dream, but dreams matter somehow to us. And I’m sure many of you feel as I do, as everyone I know who has spent time thinking about him feels, that the murder of Abraham Lincoln, the loss of Lincoln, is heartbreaking. And I admit that one of the reasons I wanted to make this film, I wanted — impossibly — to bring Lincoln back from his sleep of one-and-a-half centuries even if only for two-and-a-half hours, and even if only in a cinematic dream.
“So does this mean that in making Lincoln I was attempting to deny the finality of death? I hope not. Lincoln certainly would not have approved of that.
“One thing I’ve learned from dreaming about the 16th President and the Civil War is that as much as we need memory to live, we need an awareness of death to live. Truly that’s what cemeteries like Gettysburg are for. They are places we go to remember the honoured dead, and also to remember death itself.
“But if we need an awareness of death to make sense of life, we also need an awareness that the meaning of life is not merely that we die. Lincoln, in the only speech by an American maybe greater than the one he delivered here, directed us toward the attainment of that awareness, to gaze with appropriate humility into the face of the infinite and to guess, as we must, in order to act, at what God means for us and what life means.
“Lincoln suggested here at Gettysburg and at his second inaugural address that to try to grasp the meaning of our existence is the great task always before us, before us all - historians, artists, statesmen, politicians, everyone on earth. To try to comprehend the point of our struggles and our suffering, our defeats, our triumphs, the search for the meaning of our lives, and of our deaths, is the highest function of our capacities to reason, to remember, to imagine, and to dream.
“And now, I begin to recognise, in the two-minute length of the Gettysburg address, another aspect of Lincoln’s genius - namely knowing when to stop. So I speak for myself and this talented crew of artists and newly-minted Lincoln obsessives that helped me make our film, thank you for making it possible for us to remember, and for assisting us, and at times indulging us, as we concoct our dreams.
“Thank you all very, very much.”