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Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

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Today in 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. Fewer than 300 words in length, it is today recognized as one of the greatest speeches in American history. Many myths still exist regarding it’s origin, exact wording and the effect it had on the crowd to which it was first delivered.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a town of just over 2,400 citizens in 1863. For three days in July of that year, 160,000 soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy fought in and around the town; it was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War and marked an important turning point in the conflict. When the smoke cleared, nearly 8,000 Americans lay dead and over 27,000 more were wounded.

Soon after the battle, the state of Pennsylvania bought the land where much of the fighting had taken place and turned it into a cemetery. The town planned a dedication ceremony for September 23, 1863. Edward Everett, a former Secretary of State, US Senator and Representative, Governor of Massachusetts and president of Harvard University, was invited to be the event’s main speaker. At that time, Everett was widely known, immensely popular and was considered to be the greatest orator of his day. Unfortunately, Everett could not be ready in such a short period of time, so the dedication was rescheduled for November 19th, a Thursday.

President Lincoln was also invited to the event, but not as the main speaker. It was customary in those days to have not just a main speaker at a public event of this magnitude, but also to have a more famous or higher-ranking official present to give a shorter speech. Thus, the President knew that while he would be expected to give an address, it needed to be relatively short.

Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg on the day before the dedication and spent the evening putting the finishing touches on his speech. Generations of school children in the United States have been told in their history classes that Lincoln wrote the address on the back of an envelope while on the train to Gettyburg. This is not true. The President wrote the speech while still in Washington and only made small changes the night before the dedication. The exact wording of the address Lincoln gave remains something of a mystery, for the five original copies he gave away afterwards each contain small discrepancies. One of the five, the Bliss version, has become the recognized version of the speech because it is the only one dated and signed by Lincoln.

There were as many as 15,000 people at the dedication ceremony on the morning of the 19th. Six governors were also in attendance. Edward Everett’s remarks, the first of the day, are almost forgotten by Americans today because his two hour oratory contained nearly 14,000 words. Nevertheless, he was warmly received by the audience.

President Lincoln was the next man to stand before the crowd. Eyewitnesses to the Address wrote of his Kentucky accent and some said that his voice was high-pitched. In these days before artificial amplification, the President would’ve needed to almost yell to be heard by the thousands in attendance. He spoke for less than three minutes. This is what he said:

“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.”

Stories of the crowd’s reaction vary. Some say there was a smattering of applause; others say there was silence. But one thing was certain: in a single page, Abraham Lincoln redefined the Civil War as not just the quelling of a rebellion, but as a struggle for the survival of democracy.

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