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Remembering History: The Gettysburg Address

Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id# cph.3a53289)

On 19 November 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered what would be the most memorable speech given by a president in U.S. history. He was attending the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Four and a half months prior the Battle of Gettysburg had taken place resulting in a major victory for the Union armies. The casualties to both sides were considerable. It also had the highest number of Confederate and Union generals who died in battle as well.

Edward Everett, the best orator of the time, delivered a two hour speech preceding Lincoln’s. When Lincoln spoke, it was only for a few minutes. His speech was only 271 words long after the long speech of Everett’s, so it could have been easily forgotten. People attending gave different accounts of how it was received. Some said a dignified silence, others polite applause. Edward Everett thought it was well done and said so to Lincoln in a letter. Once the text got out to the general public, Democrat leaning newspapers derided it while Republican ones praised. The Times of London thought it a ludicrous speech.

Yet this speech would become famous. It would become oft quoted and praised by many as time went on. Far from being ludicrous, as the Times of London thought it was, it became a standard for other orators to try and emulate. And his eloquent words: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, shall not perish from the earth,” are still stirring to this day.

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — 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.

Abraham Lincoln
19 November 1863

Sources:
Abraham Lincoln Online
Britannica
Wikipedia