We all know that the Gettysburg Address is a speech, not a postal destination, and we probably know that President Lincoln delivered this address. Have you always had this back-of-the-mind suspicion that you should know more about it, for all the attention it gets? If so, then here is what you should already know.
The Gettysburg Address’s message, writing style and historical context have made it one of the United States’ most famous and enduring speeches. The occasion was the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, carved from the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where four months earlier the Union army had defeated the Confederacy in three days of fighting with more than 50,000 casualties total. President Lincoln’s decision to make a personal appearance gives you an idea of the impact the Battle of Gettysburg must have had on the young, divided nation. Physical and emotional wounds were still raw that day, November 19, 1863, when the President delivered his short, somber and heart-felt speech.
Using 272 words in just over two minutes, Lincoln accomplished a lot of things. He reminded everyone that it had only been “four score and seven” or 87 years since we declared independence from Britain in 1776. He recalled the country’s founding principles and contextualized them within the current struggle. He memorialized the sacrifice of the soldiers who fell at Gettysburg. He proclaimed the Civil War as both a struggle for the preservation of the Union as well as a struggle for human equality. He predicted “a new birth of freedom” that would bring true equality for all. Finally, and made a case for ensuring the survival of America’s representative democracy so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Looked at in the context of what was happening to the country and what had just happened at Gettysburg, it carried a powerful message.
There are five known manuscripts of this short speech, all named after the person to whom Lincoln gave the copy (Nicolay, Hay, Everett, Bancroft and Bliss), and all slightly different from each other. Two versions were given to his private secretaries (John Nicolay and John Hay) around the time of the speech, while three were drafted by him in 1864 for charitable purposes. Of the five, the last copy drafted, the Bliss copy (given to Colonel Alexander Bliss), has become the accepted standard wording because it is the only version titled, signed and dated by Lincoln. The wording on the Lincoln Memorial is that of the Bliss copy. The original Bliss manuscript is on display in the Lincoln Room in the White House.
Was it one of the country’s greatest speeches? You be the judge:
“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 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 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.”