On Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln offered the most important speech in American political history when he delivered the Gettysburg Address.
That July, the Union and Confederate armies had met in the largest battle of the Civil War at Gettysburg, Pa. Total casualties from both sides of the battle amounted to nearly 50,000 men, with somewhere around 10,000 combat deaths. The battle had stopped Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia from threatening the major cities of the North, and had ensured that the Confederates would never again take the strategic initiative in the war.
Despite the victory at Gettysburg on July 3, and the even more strategically important Union victory at Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, many in the North called for an end to the war. The carnage from more than two years of brutal, bloody fighting led many to believe that Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery was preferable to a continuation of the war. The Republicans began calling this peace faction, which was strong within the Democratic party, the Copperheads, because their work to undermine the northern war effort supposedly made them akin to poisonous snakes.
In November, as Lincoln traveled to participate in the dedication of the cemetery for war dead at Gettysburg, he knew he had to address these concerns. Perhaps more than anyone alive at the time, Lincoln too hated the war and wished to see it concluded as speedily as possible. He knew, however, that to end the war by fragmenting the Union was not acceptable. And though he went to war in 1861 with the preservation of the Union his utmost priority, by 1863 he had come to realize that the total abolition of slavery in America was every bit as important.
Preceding Lincoln on the stage that fair November afternoon was former president of Harvard University Edward Everett, whom Ralph Waldo Emerson considered a “master of elegance.” For more than two hours, Everett spoke of the great battle and the war aims of the Union, a discourse that he had taken great pains to compose. In fact, when he had first been asked to give a speech at Gettysburg to take place on Oct. 23, he feared that it would not be enough time in which to write so important a speech. It was for this reason the dedication was pushed back to Nov. 19.
Historian Stephen Sears writes in his book “Gettysburg”: “So it was left to Mr. Lincoln ... to unveil the meaning inherent in this terrible battle and its terrible losses. Someone had to speak for all these silent dead, and by rights that someone ought to be the commander-in-chief.”
In contrast to the rambling Everett, Lincoln offered only offered three simple paragraphs that began with the famous words, “Four score and seven years ago...” Within this speech, Lincoln invokes not the U.S. Constitution, which had been at the heart of the debates surrounding slavery and secession for years, but rather the Declaration of Independence and its most sacred promise: “that all men are created equal.”
Here, Lincoln is reminding his listeners that before the United States was a republic, it was an ideal. More than its government, the United States was an idea that a man could be whatever he wished to be, so long as he followed his conscience and his heart. Inherent also is the chastisement that America had not lived up to the promise of 1776. For nearly a century the United States had denied some men this universal liberty simply because of the color of their skin.
Lincoln begins the second paragraph placing the legacy of the founding fathers in its present context: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war.” He notes that the very ideas of liberty and free government are being tested, and that men had given their lives to defend these concepts. He then addresses the solemnity of the occasion and the correctness of the dedication of the cemetery.