This week in history: The Gettysburg Address

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 7 2015 1:22 a.m. MDT

This monument in Gettysburg, Pa., commemorates the Gettysburg Address delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 19,1863. (Shutterstock) This monument in Gettysburg, Pa., commemorates the Gettysburg Address delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 19,1863. (Shutterstock)

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.

In the third paragraph Lincoln's gift for the written language is matched only by his unique understanding of the war and its true meaning. It is the dead of the past July who honored the ground, not the living of November. Offering what was perhaps one of the greatest understatements in history, Lincoln follows it with perhaps one of the greatest truths: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln then urges the listeners, and indeed the whole country, to continue the war in spite of the appalling losses and human suffering: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” It is only through the renewed commitment to the cause, with all of the horrors to come that it would entail, that America could truly heal. This was Lincoln's answer to the Copperheads, and it was a unique and valuable wisdom.

Lincoln's remarks lasted barely two minutes, and was met with near universal acclaim in the North. The next day Everett wrote to Lincoln: “Permit me ... to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity and appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address remains one of the most important and moving documents in our nation's history. It is certainly worth reproduction below. I urge you all to read the great president's words out loud and ponder his meaning as it would have been understood in the context of the time. In my American history classes I always read these words out loud in the hope that they will touch the hearts of a new generation, the way they have touched the hearts of so many Americans since they were first spoke nearly 150 years ago:

“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 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.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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