Oratorical Greatness: The Gettysburg Address
Today marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Widely regarded as one of the finest speeches in our nation’s history, it was delivered by Lincoln at the ceremony dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery, one of about 180 military cemeteries now run by the United States government in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
With the exception of Arlington National Cemetery, Gettysburg is arguably the country’s best known military cemetery. Like Arlington, the Gettysburg cemetery was established during the American Civil War to bury the enormous number of Union dead. Unlike Arlington, Gettysburg is located in the small southern Pennsylvania town where those there interred died in the bloodiest battle of the 4-year war. Between both sides, nearly 8,000 were killed and more than 27,000 wounded over just three days of fighting.
The Battle of Gettysburg was waged from July 1-3, 1863. Notwithstanding the casualties, it was a Union victory and the turning point in the war. The national cemetery was dedicated 4½ months later, on November 19, 1863. The President’s speech was not the centerpiece of the dedication program. That distinction went to Edward Everett, a former Massachusetts congressman, senator, and governor who had also served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom and, briefly, Secretary of State. Everett’s speech weighed in at more than 13,500 words and took two hours to recite. Lincoln’s remarks were a mere 270 words and were read in just a few minutes.
Contrary to the President’s prediction, the world does remember what he said at that ceremony. His words are remarkable in their simplicity and perfect in their recognition that the dedication of the graveyard was a mere formality.
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 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.