On Thursday November 19, 1863 — 148 years ago this day — in the small, war-battered Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln delivered the renowned “Gettysburg Address.”
The occasion was the dedication of the battlefield cemetery which was to be the final resting place of more than 6,000 casualties from the fierce fighting that took place from July 1 – 3 that year. The Civil War Battle of Gettysburg proved to be the decisive turning point of that great war; Lincoln’s brief speech proved to be a turning point in the development of this great nation.
Lincoln was a man of great personal courage, drive, vision, and oratorical skill, and a savvy-enough politician to know that his speech which extolled not merely the dead, but the sacred cause they died for, had certain political risks. But he delivered the speech because he felt that it was necessary.
In a day and age when orators were valued for the lengths of their speeches, Lincoln’s address was a mere jot; it lasted less than 3 minutes. Some of those present were unimpressed by the speech, and there is a popular tale that claims the speech was scorned by the audience, but there is no evidence that this was so. True, one can find editorials written after that day which criticize the speech, but these were from distinctly anti-Lincoln papers. The vast majority of pieces written about the speech were decidedly positive. The renowned orator Edward Everett who preceded Lincoln that day, said to Lincoln, “I wish I had come as near to capturing the meaning of today in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
The United States survived that war as a stronger nation, and one that was more truly free, though there was and is more work to be done.
In September of 2003 I visited the Lincoln Memorial with a colleague. He took the time to read both the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address which are carved into the stone walls on the memorial. After he had finished he observed: “Maybe if I knew more history, I wouldn’t despair so much for the present.” And I have to think that in times such as these it is more important than ever to look back upon Lincoln, his vision, his courage, and remember that there is reason to be hopeful for our future. Always.
I know you’ve read it and heard many times before, but I think it does bear repeating:
LINCOLN’S GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
Fourscore 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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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
Lincoln’s message remains meaningful even to this very day.
Flower Mound, Texas
If I turn my enemy into my friend, have I not slain my enemy?
More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in American history except, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin. My own small collection of Lincoln books runs to 17 volumes, some fairly hefty. In 1992, Garry Wills published Lincoln At Gettysburg about Lincoln’s most famous speech. This treatment started something of a trend, and subsequently several historians have published books devoted to just a single one of Lincoln’s speeches or proclamtions. Herewith, my own sampling:
Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills; Simon & Schuster, 1992: ISBN: 0671769561
This is a detailed history of Lincoln’s speech and its impact. Wills includes analysis of the speech from the perspective of 19th Century oratorical standards, and he discusses the effect of Lincoln’s brief and concise style upon later oratorical trends. The other speeches delivered at Gettysburg that day are included in the extensive appendices.
Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White, Jr.; Simon & Schuster, 2002: ISBN: 0743212983
White examines Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and assesses its unique place among all of Lincoln’s speeches; it was, as Frederick Douglass observed, “more like a sermon than a state paper.” This relatively short book (about 200 pages) is by no means the last word on this important speech, but White provides an interesting and thought provoking contribution to the discussion of Lincoln’s speeches.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End Of Slevery In America, Allen G. Guelzo; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743221826
Guelzo received the Lincoln Prize for his 2000 biography of Lincoln. This work, despite its rather glib subtitle, is by no means so simple as to assume that Lincoln’s proclamation actully itself ended slavery. Indeed, Guelzo looks carefully at the politics which influenced the proclamation, and the results, both political and social, which the proclamation produced.
Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, Harold Holzer; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743224663
Because Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in February 1860 has faded from modern memory, Holzer felt it was time to give a book-length treatment of the speech which Lincoln and his contemporaries identified as the one that gained him his party’s nomination. The speech contains many well-known Lincoln quotations, but its overall importance is given its due in the entertaining and enlightening work. I like Holzer’s emphasis on Lincoln’s political courage in carrying his campaign platform into New York City and the heart of his rival William Seward’s strong home base. (I obviously admire Lincoln’s political courage.)