On this date, November 19, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
I heard or read the speech several times in school, but I don’t think its importance or powerful brevity made a strong impression on me then. Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, it is often taught in public speaking courses. Students are surprised at its brevity, which is part of its power.
As an adult, I visited the cemetery and battlefield. Though it is now a National Park Service tourist attraction with buildings, parking lots, and a gift shop, walking along the battlefield still had a kind of hard-to-describe power.
November 19 was four and a half months after the battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived at about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, and a local preacher offered a long prayer. Surprisingly, Lincoln was not considered to be the headlining orator. That was Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours and described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.
“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.“
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes. It is less than 300 words. Ten long sentences. It was so brief, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn’t even realize that the president had spoken.
The next day, Everett told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
On the train trip from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg on November 18, Lincoln remarked to a member of his cabinet that he felt weak. Several people who accompanied the President reported that he had been dizzy the next morning and that his face had “a ghastly color” and that he was “sad, mournful, almost haggard.” After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30pm train to return to Washington, D.C., he was feverish and weak with a severe headache, and when he returned to the White House, he was diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox.
There are several versions of the speech because five different manuscript copies exist and they vary slightly. Lincoln gave copies to both of his private secretaries, and the other three versions were re-written by the president after he made the speech. The Bliss Copy, named for Colonel Alexander Bliss, is the only copy that was signed and dated by Lincoln, and it’s generally accepted as the official version for that reason.
The last time I felt the power of his address was when I read it as it is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial on a trip to Washington, DC in November of 2016. It was just after the election of President Trump. I, and many Americans, were wondering how differently Lincoln’s words would be interpreted by different groups of people today.
Link to an NPS Virtual Tour of Gettysburg National Military Park