Without question, The Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American history. Children recite in school, or at least they used to, and many of its passages are instantly recognized by many Americans. But, I would venture to say that most people do not truly understand its importance or, more importantly, even begin to sense the magnificence and power of Abraham Lincoln’s 269 word oration. It has inspired much historiography, most notably the recent works by Garry Wills and Gabor Boritt. Every word, every nuance has been examined and the speech has even inspired many myths.
One myth holds that the speech was allegedly written on the back of an envelope, while another states that the address was considered a failure by the audience, the press, and Lincoln himself. The envelope myth has most certainly been debunked by historians and, in fact, no one is precisely sure what copy was the actual text as spoken on November 19, 1863, given that there are five different versions. However, only one copy was actually signed by Lincoln and, while it was written down several months after the address, that is the version most of us are familiar with. As for its popularity at the time, most recollections simply state that the audience was surprised by the brevity of the speech and the press primarily divided their opinions along political lines. As for Lincoln himself, most recent scholarship seems to indicate that he felt his point had been delivered.
So, what was Lincoln’s point? While I cannot write a book here and provide the detailed analysis that men like Wills and Boritt already have, I will try to give you my views and do so as simply as possible. To do so, however, it is important to place the speech in context, both in terms of the war and the place it was delivered. In November 1863, the Civil War was in the midst of its third full year. The previous summer, Union armies had been victorious both at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But the fall had brought defeat at Chickamauga, which placed the defeated Union Army of the Cumberland under siege in Chattanooga. However, as Lincoln delivered his address at Gettysburg, the newly assigned Union commander in the West, Ulysses S. Grant, was preparing to break that siege, opening the door to the Deep South.
Still, the coming spring and summer would bring new campaigns, new battles, and ever more casualties. The war had already resulted in death and suffering on a scale the nation had never imagined possible, and Lincoln carried that great burden on his shoulders. His photographs from this time show deep lines on his face and one can sense his own intense suffering. He visited the hospitals in Washington D.C. constantly and saw firsthand the damage the war levied in broken bodies and souls. The nation was becoming war weary and the months ahead would not bring a swift end to the country’s pain. But, while Lincoln felt every bit of that pain, he also was keenly aware of what he called the “awful arithmetic of war.” He had not and would not lose his resolve to see the war through.
As for the place of the address, Gettysburg, of course, had been the site of the monumental three-day battle between the Union Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Following the battle, it was decided to place a military cemetery on the battlefield where the remains of Unions soldiers killed in the fighting would be interred. The President, along with former Massachusetts senator and noted orator, Edward Everett, were invited to the dedication ceremonies. Everett, however, was to deliver the main dedication oration, while Lincoln was only to provide a “few appropriate remarks.” Everett’s two-hour oration, a length typical for mid-19th century speechmaking, clearly focused on what was likely his and the audience’s vision of the battle as a monumental turning point, a great signal victory. And, while Lincoln certainly said nothing to indicate he felt otherwise, we know that he did not share that view. He was, of course, grateful that General Meade and his army had turned Lee back, but he saw the battle as a lost opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and thus hasten the war’s conclusion. In his mind, Lee and his formidable army were now safe in Virginia and bringing them to bay would require even more bloodshed and sacrifice. I raise this issue solely for one reason: While Gettysburg was the place for this address, he could have and, likely, would have given it on that November day at any battlefield of the war.
That brings us to the purpose and the meaning of his words. Lincoln begins with a simple summation of what he saw as the basis of the war. First, he reminds us that the nation was created as one where all men were to be equal. This is important to note because, here, he is really citing the Declaration of Independence, which he viewed as our moral manifesto, as the rock upon which the nation rested. The war, in turn, was testing whether a nation “so conceived and dedicated” could survive against those who challenged its moral basis. Interestingly, however, Lincoln moves quickly past the idea that the ceremony of which he was part could do anything to consecrate or hallow the ground on which they stood—that had already been done by the sacrifice of those who had fought there. Rather, he said, they were there to rededicate themselves and the nation to the “great task remaining.” And what was that great task? Was it victory? Yes, it was certainly that. Was it restoration of the Union? Of course, it was that as well. But, it was also something far more, and it was something that would be, in Lincoln’s mind, the product of both—It was a “new birth of freedom.”
For Lincoln, that was the true goal—the creation of a nation free from the tyranny of human slavery, where all were free to reap the fruits of their labor, where all had the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, no matter their race, their religion, or their ethnicity. And, I believe that, while Lincoln spoke in the sense of the more near term, he knew in his heart that a long road was ahead to truly achieve that kind of freedom in any complete sense. But first, to bring about the birth, victory must come and that would hopefully ensure the preservation of government by, of, and for the people.
So, in that sense, I believe that the true majesty of Lincoln’s words come from seeing them as a challenge to us all, to the generations that would follow, to continue the struggle, to not let those who died at Gettysburg, or hundreds of other places in the other wars that have followed, to have died in vain. In that sense, Lincoln, perhaps, said far more than he realized, and I believe the challenge he laid down that November day is as viable today as it was 152 years ago. That is why I cherish The Gettysburg Address so dearly.
The speech is in the history of America as the greatest speech that has ever been given in the soil. The speech itself lasted only two minutes but left a significant impact. It is an address that has been used in America in many contexts. The speech was prepared by the president in honor of the fallen soldiers during the Civil War. It was at their grave site in Gettysburg. The president was honoring the soldiers for maybe after they were buried not many people would remember what happened, but their achievements will be long with us. The opening remarks of the speech were symbolized the independence of the United States. Lincoln was brave enough to use the principles of America in the speech. He stated in the speech that the war marked a new birth of freedom. This new version of freedom would see all members being treated equally. He had prepared the speech well and it is the reason it is the most influential speech in the land of America. The speech has its sources from the principles of America and the Bible, which he believed was supposed to guide the people.
The Legacy of the Speech
The speech was built on all the principles of America. It promised the people a government that would accommodate all the people in the honor of the dead. The speech has been quoted in other contexts several times. When President Lincoln was assassinated, the words in the speech were said in his burial. The speech is still taught in the classes in America today. Martin Luther King in his book I Have a Dream, has referred to the words of the speech. “Five scores years ago” the opening remarks of the speech refer to the time independence was achieved in America. In 1963, the words were used by President J. F. Kennedy to refer to the courage and faith that Lincoln had in the principles of the United States. in the constitution of France there are words that talk about the government the government of the people for the people. They have borrowed these words from the Gettysburg Address.
There are five copies of the Gettysburg Address. The copies are different in wording but of the same context. Scholars have had doubts about which of the copies was made first and the one that was read on the material day. The fact is that Lincoln made the five pieces and gave them out.