The Gettysburg Address Still Resonates Today
By John Allison
Why should we care about the Gettysburg Address? Lincoln wasn’t the keynote speaker at the dedication of the National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. Edward Everett spoke for about two hours, giving a narrative of the battle, comparing the Union dead to the ancient Greek defenders of Marathon, and attacking rebel claims that secession was legal.
Southerners argued that the federal government was an agent of the states, so the states could leave the Union. Everett pointed out that the states’ Constitutional Officers took an oath to the U.S. Constitution, and the federal government didn’t take an oath to the states. Lincoln later wrote to Everett “The point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency…I think, is one of the best arguments for national supremacy.”
Thousands attended the dedication, many came to listen to Edward Everett. Everett was a famous orator who gained renown when traveling the country in the 1850’s giving a speech on “The Character of George Washington.” His speaking tour raised $70,000 to save Mount Vernon. One of Everett’s 129 speeches on Washington was at the Academy of Music in New York City. The 7,000 seats weren’t enough, and angry overflow crowds burst in to hear Everett speak.
Given Everett’s fame, he was a natural choice to speak at the dedication. The organizers also invited Henry Longfellow, the famous poet, but he didn’t attend The cemetery commission chose November 19 as the date because that was the first date Everett was available. Once the date was set, David Wills of the cemetery commission sent a letter to Lincoln on November 2, 1863 asking Lincoln to attend and offer “a few appropriate remarks.” The organizers did not want a long speech from the President. Some worried he wasn’t up to the task of delivering such a solemn speech.
Lincoln wanted to attend, but the pressures of the war and preparing his Annual Message to Congress threatened to keep him in Washington. It seems he only decided to go over the weekend of November 14 and 15, likely after meeting Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin at the White House on the 14th.
Despite the last minute preparations, Lincoln later told his friend James Speed he’d written about half the speech before leaving Washington. One of the surviving drafts is written in ink on White House stationary. Lincoln edited it in Gettysburg, adding another page, but it’s likely he had the speech nearly finished when he left Washington. The Nicolay Draft, which is likely the draft Lincoln spoke from at the dedication, is two pages. Page one is written in ink on White House stationary. Page two is written in pencil on plain paper. Lincoln likely wrote the second page of this draft in Gettysburg, revising the speech almost until he delivered it.
Lincoln wanted to see the battlefield. He especially wanted to see the spot where General John Reynolds, the battle’s highest ranking Union casualty, died. Lincoln had offered Reynolds command of the Army of the Potomac in June of 1863. Reynolds declined, and was killed leading his men into battle on McPherson Ridge on the first day of the battle. Lincoln and Secretary of State WilliamSeward visited the spot near the Seminary early on November 19.
Lincoln’s speech was well received at the cemetery. Isaak Allen, a Lincoln supporter and future Consul to Hong Kong, heard the speech. While not necessarily an impartial observer, Allen remembered standing next to a soldier, “the empty sleeve of his coat indicating that he had stood where death was reveling.” When Lincoln delivered the powerful line “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” Allen remembered the soldier breaking down in tears. Allen then remembered the soldier looking up at the sky and exclaiming “God Almighty bless Abraham Lincoln!”
The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported “the short, modest, fitting address of the President of the United States produced tears at times, and at times every other emotion as only the highest eloquence can.” Certainly Lincoln’s words didn’t get many compliments from the Democratic newspapers, but the speech wasn’t a flop in 1863.
Major Azor Nickerson, who fought at Gettsyburg, recalled decades later that the speech was “the whole matter in a nutshell.” Later, Senator Charles Sumner shared a letter from Elizabeth Granville, the Duchess of Argyll. In it she said “the speech at the Gettysburg Cemetery must live.” Lincoln cherished the compliment, saving a copy of the letter.
Lincoln did what he wanted to do at Gettysburg, and he did it under very difficult circumstances. He balanced a delicate political situation, the demands of governing in wartime, and he likely already felt ill with smallpox. Lincoln felt tired and had a headache at Gettysburg. He was sick with smallpox. On returning to Washington, he was sick in bed for over a week. William Johnson, Lincoln’s assistant, died of smallpox after the dedication.
The Gettysburg Address resonates because it honors the dead by speaking to the living. Lincoln challenged his audience to re-dedicate themselves to the war effort. He reminded his listeners of the lofty ideals in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Lincoln’s speech calls on every generation to continue the work of previous generations. The nation the founders brought forth was not perfect. Neither was the union Lincoln’s generation saved. Lincoln calls on each generation to continue the work of previous generations, and to honor those who have gone before by striving to form a more perfect union.
The Gettysburg Address
There are several copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting. Each is slightly different. The Bliss Copy, presented below, is the most commonly used version and is featured on the Lincoln Memorial.
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.