On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg to help dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery. He was not the featured orator. He followed a two-hour speech with one that took just two minutes. At the end of his address, many of those in attendance didn't even realize he had spoken. But today, those 272 words continue to inspire a nation.
In the few words of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln redefined for the North - and eventually for all Americans - the meaning and value of the continuing struggle for a unified nation: "...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." It was what many consider the best summation in the nation's history of the meaning and price of freedom.
Soon after the Battle of Gettysburg, local attorney David Wills proposed the establishment of a soldiers' cemetery where Union dead could be reburied with dignity and honor.
Dedication of the cemetery, adjacent to the local cemetery where some of the fighting had taken place, occurred on November 19, 1863. Noted orator Edward Everett provided the main oration for the event, with a speech that lasted approximately two hours. Then Lincoln, wearing a black suit, tall silk hat and white gloves, delivered his address. In just a few minutes and 272 words, Lincoln described his vision for "a new birth of freedom" for America.
Contemporary reaction to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address varied widely. The Chicago Tribune predicted that it would "live among the annals of man," while its competitor, the Chicago Times, editorialized that "the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the president."
Event orator Edward Everett wrote Lincoln the next day: "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."
Today, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is considered one of the greatest speeches of all time. At some time or another, most of us probably were required to memorize all or part of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But how many of us were challenged to understand what it meant? As you read it now, we invite you to consider its significance.
- The Gettysburg Foundation
The Gettysburg Address
"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."