Presidents during their presidencies make hundreds of speeches. Most are utterly forgotten soon after they are delivered. Even most of the speeches by a president who is also a skilled orator, as Lincoln was, are recalled only by historians and trivia buffs. Yet the Gettysburg address has achieved immortality.
Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. The featured speaker was Edward Everett, one of the most accomplished men in American public life, who gave a two hour oration. It is a fine example of nineteenth century oratory, full of learning, argument and passion. It may seem very odd to contemplate in our sound bite age, but audiences in America in Lincoln’s time expected these type of lengthy excursions into eloquence and felt cheated when a speaker skimped on either length or ornateness in his efforts.
Lincoln then got up and spoke for two minutes.
We are not really sure what Lincoln said. There are two drafts of the speech in Lincoln’s hand, and they differ from each other. It is quite likely that neither reflects precisely the words that Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address. For the sake of simplicity, and because it is the version people usually think of when reference is made to the Gettysburg address, the text used here is the version carved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.
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 this 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.
Here was the masterpiece of Lincoln’s passion for concise, almost terse, argument. No doubt many in the audience were amazed when Lincoln sat down, probably assuming that this was a preamble to his main speech.
“Fourscore and seven years ago”
Lincoln starts out with an attention grabber. Rather than the prosaic eighty-seven years, he treats his listeners to a poetic line that causes them to think and follow Lincoln back in time to the founding. Continue Reading