Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln's most famous speech, was delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, during the American Civil War.

On that date, some four months after the costly Union victory in the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to the small Pennsylvania town to help dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery. Lincoln was invited to give "a few appropriate remarks." The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, a distinguished orator who had served as Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, Governor of Massachusetts and President of Harvard University. After a well received two hour speech by Everett, now largely forgotten, Lincoln spoke just over two minutes -- so briefly that the attending photographer failed to capture his image during the speech.

Table of contents
1 A short note on Everett's speech
2 An urban legend about the speech
3 The speech
4 Why there are two versions
5 Commentary
6 External links and references

A short note on Everett's speech

Everett's now-seldom-read, 13,609-word speech bombastically began:

''Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be perfomed; - grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

And ended two hours later with:

But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates The Battles of Gettysburg.

What if Lincoln had used language that turgid? He summarized the war in two minutes, in ten sentences, and under 300 words.

An urban legend about the speech

Lincoln did not write the speech on the back of an envelope (see references), riding on the train from Washington to Gettysburg. Several drafts are in existence, and he modified it the night before, and modified it as he spoke.

The speech

What Lincoln really said at Gettysburg

Learning and reciting the President's speech, or excerpts from it, has become a standard part of many grade school history classes. But in contrast to what most American children hear in school, the prose presented in most textbooks is not the exact text of Lincoln's actual words. Why the speech was changed is of some historical interest, and we address this, presenting Lincoln's actual words, the changes contrasted to Lincoln's actual speech, and the (wrong) version often heard.

Lincoln's actual speech follows (broken into paragraphs for clarity), rendered in Lincoln's high-pitched, western twang:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon 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 are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place of those who 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 but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. 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 their last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

What Lincoln actually said contrasted to the often-quoted version of the speech

(Lincoln's actual words are in boldface where needed, and things he did not say are struck though)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon 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 are met have come to dedicate a portion of it that field, as the a final resting place of 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 can not dedicate, -- we can not consecrate,'' -- we can not 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 carried on 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 here gave the last full measure of devotion; -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; -- that the this nation shall, 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.

The often-quoted, incorrect version of the speech

Lincoln's words have become enshrined as a historic American utterance, studied by scholars and memorized by school children for generations, and here is the revised version many learned in school — even if not what Lincoln said:

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 can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not 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.

Why there are two versions

A few days later, an orator asked Lincoln for a copy of the speech, and Lincoln obliged — with revisions. The second we are met became we have come, and resting place of morphed into resting place for; the clause the unfinished work which they have thus far so nobly carried on became the unfinished work that they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced, and the nation shall, under God became this nation, under God. A couple drafts later, Lincoln gave out presentation copies, making two further changes; in the first sentence upon became on, and in the last, the word here was dropped. The final draft was two words longer that what he had part-read and part-improvised at Gettysburg; half of its ten sentences had some change.

Commentary

The Gettysburg Address (revised version) is inscribed on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Most of the audience was watching the photographer, and the applause was delayed, scattered, and according to Foote (references), "barely polite." The photographer felt cheated — the President had spoke at an important event, and he didn't get Lincoln's photograph.

The next day the Chicago Sun-Times would observe, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." Lincoln himself commented to a friend, "Lamon, that speech won't scour."

Not all reviewers were as caustic as the one in Lincoln's adopted state of Illinois (Lincoln was born in Kentucky). The New York Times was complimentary. A Massachusetts paper printed the entire speech, commenting that it was "deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma. With time, Lincoln revised his opinion of "my little speech," and as noted above, he revised text of the speech as well.

Initial public reaction to the speech was divided along partisan lines, but in a letter to Lincoln the next day, Everett praised the President for his eloquently concise speech saying, "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 was glad to know the speech was not a "total failure."

It is also often pointed out that Lincoln used the word nation five times, never union. He did not use the words slavery, nullification, or state's rights, but hearkened back to the Declaration of Independence, and the powerful statement that all men are created equal, and not the Constitution of 1789 with its implied recongition of slavery (the word slave does not appear in the 1789 Constitution; the "three fifths" clause simply says "three fifths of all other Persons.") At the time, the U.S. was split asunder and wasn't a union, and restoring the nation — not a collection of sovereign states — was paramount. Everett talked two hours; Lincoln summarized what the war was about in two minutes.

External links and references


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