THE LITERARY WORK
A brief speech delivered at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863.
In July 1863, it was not at all clear to President Abraham Lincoln or the rest of the nation whether the North or South would emerge victorious from the Civil War that threatened to destroy the country. In the midst of all the uncertainty and bloodshed, after a battle that claimed more lives than any until that time, Northerners held a solemn ceremony to consecrate a cemetery for their fallen. In a brief address at the occasion, Lincoln spoke of the larger cause to which both sides had been devoted when founding the nation. Referring to the country’s Declaration of Independence (also covered in Literature and Its Times), his Gettysburg Address turned the idea of equality, rather than the separate causes for which each side fought, into the nation’s primary focus.
The war prior to Gettysburg
Pitting the Northern states of the Union against the Southern states of the Confederacy, the Civil War was a sobering experience. At an enormous cost not only in money ($20 billion) but also in lives (600,000 killed or dead from disease), the four-year conflict forced the nation to confront issues that threatened its survival.
Although scholars still debate the actual causes of the war, three main areas proved divisive—state rights, economics, and slavery. The Southern states favored state sovereignty over federal regulations, while many Northern ones did not. Tariff arguments pitted Southern plantation owners, who generally wanted low taxes on imported goods, against Northern manufacturers, who pushed for high tariffs on imports in order to protect their own products. Finally, debate escalated over the issue of slavery. Southerners argued that state sovereignty and the sanctity of private property were at stake, growing ever more vehement until they went so far as to tout slavery as a positive good. Meanwhile, Northerners used such publications as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) (also covered in Literature and Its Times) as an indictment of all slaveowners. Eventually the differences between the two regions congealed into one full-scale conflict of interest. It was a conflict that proved intolerable for the South.
On February 4, 1861, seven Southern states seceded from the Union and adopted a constitution for the Confederate States of America. A few months later four more states joined them. With Jefferson Davis as their president, the Confederacy (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) fought to gain control of federal property in the Southern jurisdiction. They focused their efforts on the acquisition of Fort Sumter on the Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort was a major international port, and the Confederates needed to gain control of it so that they could secure trade with outside nations. On April 12, 1861, after offering Union forces a chance to evacuate the fort, the Confederates fired the first shots of the Civil War.
The conflict continued for two agonizing years before the Battle of Gettysburg. In a seesaw string of battles, the Confederate forces of the South, which had fewer resources and men, nevertheless more than held their own.
The South actually did very well in the first two years of the war. After suffering a temporary setback at Antietam in Maryland, Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his army to victories at Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville in Virginia. His confidence boosted, Lee decided to go on the offensive and take his troops into the North. His Confederate army seemed close to total victory; another success could woo Great Britain and France into supporting the Southerners. Meanwhile, the Union struggled on, battling not only Lee’s army in the East but also other Confederates in the West.
President Lincoln put the Union’s eastern army under the command of General George G. Meade; its western troops were headed by General Ulysses S. Grant. In the first week of July 1863, Meade led Union forces into battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, while Grant and his troops were similarly engaged at Vicksburg, Mississippi. At home in the nation’s capital, Lincoln anxiously awaited the news from either front; given the recent defeats suffered by the Union army, his administration was being pressured to step down and capitulate altogether.
The Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most important battles in the Civil War and marked a turning point in history. Fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from July 1 to July 3, 1863, the battle pitted seventy-five thousand Confederate soldiers against ninety thousand Union men. Of these, roughly forty thousand would suffer injury or death in the three days of fighting.
Lee’s army had started northward on June 3, 1863, moving slowly because so many men and equipment had to cover so great a distance. Following him were Meade’s Union troops. Neither
MAJOR CIVIL WAR BATTLES BEFORE GETTYSBURG
|1861||First Battle of Bull Run||Confederacy||460||387|
|1862||Second Battle of Bull Run||Confederacy||1,747||1,553|
|1862||Battle of Antietam||Union||2,108||1,512|
|1862||Battle of Fredericksburg||Confederacy||1,284||608|
|1863||Battle of Chancellorsville||Confederacy||1,606||1,649|
side knew exactly where the other’s force was. By the end of June, the Confederate army had arrived west and north of Gettysburg, while the Union army was located to the south of the town. The tens of thousands of soldiers dwarfed the town’s population of twenty-four hundred.
By chance, some Confederates close to Gettysburg fired on some Union cavalry men on July 1. Neither Lee nor Meade had planned to initiate a fight at that locale, but what began as a small skirmish mushroomed into a full-scale battle. The Confederates captured the town of Gettysburg, pushing the Union troops back to Cemetery Hill. General Lee and his troops charged the right flank of the Union force on July 1. On the following day Lee attacked the left. After both attacks were thwarted, Lee made a frontal attack that was daring, considering the circumstances. Gettysburg was mostly an infantry battle, with soldiers fighting in lines. Both sides used muzzle-loading rifles. Each round took thirty seconds to load and fire, which made a frontal attack a great gamble. The attackers became easy targets.
Nevertheless, on July 3, in what some scholars term the most famous charge in American military history, the Confederates attacked the Union center. The attack turned into a disaster for Lee’s forces. By the time the smoke cleared, Lee’s army listed 3,903 dead, 18,735 wounded. The North totaled 3,155 dead, 14,529 injured. The number of soldiers killed at Gettysburg thus amounted to more than twice the number of casualties that the armies had endured to that point. On July 5 Lee began his retreat to Virginia, leading his depleted and drastically weakened troops toward the Potomac River, which was swollen due to heavy rains in the area.
Meanwhile, in the West, Grant had laid siege to and won Vicksburg for the Union. With this victory the North gained control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two, dividing the Southern states west of the river thoroughfare from those east of it. Lincoln rejoiced. The end of the war seemed near. If Meade’s army chased and caught Lee’s remaining forces, the Confederacy could be crushed once and for all. But Meade let Lee escape, and the war continued.
Still, Gettysburg had done irreversible damage to the South. Never again would Lee’s army be strong enough to take the offensive. There was symbolic value in the battle, too. Out of a ceremony to consecrate a cemetery for the soldiers who perished in the fighting, the primary reason for the war became clear. Ironically, remarked one historian, “out of all this muddle, these missed chances, all the senseless deaths, [Gettysburg] would become a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals” because of President Lincoln’s brief address (Wills, p. 20).
The cemetery at Gettysburg and the dedication
In his pursuit of Lee, Meade wired Union headquarters that he could not “delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield” (Meade in Wills, p. 20). The “debris” referred to rotting horses and human bodies left to the exposure of the July sun. As they slid the soldiers into shallow graves, spading a little earth over the bodies, the burial crew roughly recorded the names of the Union dead. The same consideration was not shown to the fallen Confederate soldiers. Within a short span of time, these graves suffered from ransacking as anguished family members searched for their missing relatives.
Andrew Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania, quickly assigned a prominent citizen in Gettysburg, Judge David Wills, to form an interstate commission and gather funding for a proper cemetery. Wills hoped to dedicate the ground for the cemetery before the dead bodies were removed from their scattered, shallow graves and placed into it. In preparing a program, he asked several speakers to attend the ceremony. Poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and John Greenleaf Whittier were invited to speak, but they refused.
Nineteenth-century public oratory addresses typically lasted for several hours, and audiences delighted in the duration. Wills desperately wanted Edward Everett, a noted public speaker, to dedicate the land at Gettysburg. States one scholar, “Everett was that rare thing, a scholar and Ivy-League diplomat who could hold mass audiences in thrall” (Wills, p. 24). As he had already given famous speeches about the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord and of Bunker Hill, a speech by Everett at Gettysburg would help to soothe some of the local inhabitants’ ire over the treatment of their town. Everett agreed to attend, but he required two months from his September 23 invitation to prepare. A commemorating date of November 19, 1863, was set.
At the beginning of November, Wills also issued a rather casual invitation to President Lincoln to speak at the ceremony. The program for the ceremony lists Everett as the orator and Lincoln as the dedicator. The presence of the president was not intended to lend an aesthetic contribution to the ceremony; rather it was for the sake of formality.
While history gives various accounts of the composition of Lincoln’s address, more likely than not the president wrote at least one draft of it while still in Washington. He wrote at least six versions of the address in his own hand, making some minor revisions in the drafts. There is uncertainty about the draft that he eventually delivered. It may have been the second version, finished the morning of the ceremony in the house of his host Judge Wills.
The ceremony included band music and a formal procession that had Lincoln riding on horseback in the company of three cabinet members to the commemoration spot. At least fifteen thousand spectators descended on the small town to watch the service. The keynote speaker, Everett, and a consecration hymn were to precede the few ceremonious words to be made by Lincoln.
Everett, a scholar of classics, peppered his speech with multiple allusions to fallen Greek heroes. He opened by referring to a funeral at which the Greek general Pericles had spoken some twenty-four hundred years earlier. Using a different Greek example, he drew parallels between the dead at Gettysburg and those who had fallen at the Battle of Marathon in 490 b.c. Within this academic rhetoric, Everett more or less gave a retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg’s events. In a grand manner he related the battle to the larger war. Ultimately, he condemned the Confederates for their rebellion from the Union and relieved Meade of the blame for letting Lee escape. Everett concluded his speech after almost two hours. Voices then broke out in the consecration hymn.
Delivery of Lincoln’s speech
While Everett recited his two-hour speech from memory, Lincoln recited most but not all of his three-minute address from memory. The president delivered his speech in his usual high tenor voice, marked by Lincoln’s native Kentucky accent. Although actors impersonating the sixteenth president often lend him a deep baritone, Lincoln’s voice was in fact quite shrill. Because Lincoln spent hours poring over Shakespearean speeches, however, he knew how to manipulate the rhythms and inflections of dramatic delivery. Interrupted for applause some five times according to reports, the president’s speech was well received by his audience.
FROM THE CONSECRATION HYMN BY BENJAMIN B. FRENCH
Only 120 known photographs of Abraham Lincoln survive today. It is difficult to piece together how the president might have appeared in a live presentation based on this skimpy evidence. Eyewitnesses usually support the notion that, as a rule, Lincoln gave a fairly negative first impression. His complexion was dark, and his height made him appear gawky. It was his speaking ability that wooed crowds. In 1887 William Herndon recalled that:
When Mr. Lincoln rose up to speak, he rose slowly, steadily, firmly; he never moved much about on the stand or platform when speaking, trusting no desk, table, railing; he ran his eyes slowly over the crowd.... In his greatest inspiration he held both of his hands out above his head at an angle of about fifty degrees, hands open or clenched, according to his feeling and his ideas.
(Braden, p. 107)
There is contention about exactly what Lincoln said in the speech he delivered at the ceremony. His written manuscript cannot be relied upon for exact wording, since he relied more on his memory than the written document. One eyewitness, Boston Advertiser newsman Charles Hale, declared that he caught every word in the exact language uttered. Hale’s claim was confirmed by others in attendance. His version follows:
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 battle-field of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting-place of those who have given 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 power to add or to detract. The world will very 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 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 here gave the 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
(Lincoln in Barton, pp. 81-2)
Lincoln wrote later drafts for publication in the official report of the Gettysburg ceremony, for a New York fair, for a Baltimore fair, and for a book called Autograph Leaves of Our Country’s Authors. Below is a copy of Lincoln’s sixth draft, with revised phrases in bold for purposes of comparison.
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 the 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 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”
(Lincoln in Barton, pp. 111-12)
Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence
Lincoln opened his speech by evoking the words of the Declaration of Independence. Rather than echo the Declaration’s exact words, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal” (Thurow in Alvarez, p. 57), the president slightly altered this phrase. Lincoln called the equality of men a “proposition” that the nation is “dedicated” to achieving. He maintained that this achievement had not yet been realized.
The Civil War tested whether the nation could endure and fulfill the principle it set out to achieve—a principle of equality. Unfortunately, equality is not a standard that can be easily measured. During the pre-Civil War era, prejudices ran so deep that many felt blacks did not deserve the freedoms of whites because they were not equal citizens. Furthermore, not all members of society connected equality with justice. That is to say, not all felt it unjust that some members of society were not treated equally. Lincoln understood that the government could not attempt to simply erase this public opinion. As he stated, “A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded” (Lincoln in Alvarez, p. 62). His Gettysburg Address attempted to solve this problem of the principle of equality.
Rather than attempting to define the term, Lincoln asserted that the proposition had yet to be achieved. He challenged the nation to find a sense of equality, to prove the Declaration of Independence true. The nation was founded on a belief, but Lincoln asserted that it must be maintained with an acquired knowledge. He forced public opinion away from the moment, focusing it instead on the past and the future. Lincoln insisted that the soldiers’ deaths would be in vain unless his audience could renew its commitment to the soldiers’ cause.
Lincoln’s reliance on the Declaration in his speech cast it in a new light. Long regarded as simply the document in which the thirteen colonies claimed their independence from the British, it was spoken of in his Gettysburg Address as the country’s founding law, and it has been regarded as such ever since.
The 1800s brought with them a revival of interest in Greek history. Archaeologists began uncovering the remains of this ancient democracy, while Romantic poets such as John Keats composed odes to Greek artwork. In his speech, the classicist Everett evoked the image of Pericles speaking over the ashes of fallen Athenians who had fought against Sparta in 431 b.c. But Abraham Lincoln’s speech relied more on a Greek format than on evoking images of men like Pericles.
The structure of Grecian funeral orations featured two parts. The “epainesis” refers to the praise of the fallen, while the “parainesis” covers advice to the living. Lincoln’s speech, when examined line by line, follows this format almost exactly. He began by referring to the founding fathers and the ideals that they held. He continued with his dedication, noting that “it is altogether fitting and proper” for the living to acknowledge the achievements of the dead. The last half of his speech called on the living to prove themselves worthy of the soldiers who had died.
In many speeches, Lincoln favored the idea of thesis and antithesis, and much of his rhetoric shows these marks of contrast. In his Gettysburg Address, the two poles are death and life. Throughout the speech, Lincoln, like Pericles, called on the living generation to surpass the standards of those who came before.
Lincoln relied not only on classical models, however, for his inspiration. Much of what Lincoln said recast the words of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps to rectify his oversight in composing the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed all black slaves in rebel territory. This proclamation was a politically risky move. Lincoln took a gamble in upsetting Northern Democrats who did not support abolitionism. He knew that his Emancipation Proclamation might create turmoil in an already strained Union. In addition, it risked the reputation of the United States around the world. Given the difficulties of the war, European nations could have viewed the Emancipation Proclamation as a desperate attempt to incite a slave rebellion. It could very well have been interpreted as a sign that the Union was losing.
For these reasons, Lincoln walked a middle ground in his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that it was a purely militaristic move. He would free the slaves using his presidential power of creating a militia troop against a rebellion. His critics noted that his Proclamation made no mention of liberty or the rights of men. Lincoln rectified this with his Gettysburg Address, delivered over ten months later.
Finally, Lincoln’s choice of words was probably influenced by other Americans of his day. The renowned congressman and orator Daniel Webster (1782-1852) had defined the American system as “The people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people,” for example (Webster in Barton, p. 132). Another American, clergyman Theodore Parker (1810-1860), wrote a sermon that Lincoln is known to have read and underlined. In his sermon, Parker said, “There is what I call the American idea … that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people” (Parker in Barton, p. 135).
Reaction to the speech
As was the custom, newspapers reprinted Lincoln’s speech the day after it was delivered. Several newspapers, however, such as Milwaukee’s Daily Wisconsin, printed an incorrect version of it. Otherwise the press mostly ignored Lincoln’s address, focusing instead on Everett’s oration.
There were a few negative comments. The Chicago Times berated Lincoln for misinterpreting the Constitution in an editorial: “How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government?” (Chicago Times in Wills, p. 39). Many others accused the president of politicking—that is, grandstanding to get re-elected in 1864. The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper (Patriot and Union) spoke of the “silly remarks” made by the president at Gettysburg, while overseas the London Times maintained that “the ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.... Anything more dull and commonplace it wouldn’t be easy to produce (Barton, p. 116).
Not all responses were so caustic, however. The Springfield Republican called the speech an absolute gem—deep in meaning, compact in expression, and tasteful in every word and comma. And in 1865 Macmillan’s Magazine praised the speech’s simple structure and rich meaning as true marks of the classical style. Perhaps the greatest compliment, though, came from the keynote speaker, Edward Everett: “I should be glad,” he told Lincoln, “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” (Everett in Barton, p. 195).
Alvarez, Leo Paul S., ed. Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address and American Constitutionalism. Dallas: University of Dallas Press, 1976.
Barton, William E. Lincoln at Gettysburg: What He Intended to Say; What He Said; What He Was Reported to Have Said; What He Wished He Had Said. New York: Peter Smith, 1950.
Braden, Waldo. Abraham Lincoln, Public Speaker. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Gramm, Kent. Gettysburg: A Meditation on War and Values. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Klement, Frank L. The Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery and Lincoln’s Address: Aspects and Angles. Ship-pensburg, Pa.: White Mane, 1993.
Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Abraham Lincoln's (1809–1865) Gettysburg Address is widely recognized as one of the most significant speeches in American history. Just as Lincoln's declaration in June 1858 that "a house divided against itself cannot stand" ("Speech," p. 428) exemplified the state of the nation before the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address captured the spirit of a people seeking to maintain their unity in the face of divisive and destructive violence. Although the Civil War raged for two more years, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address provided Americans with a literary formula for accepting the costs of the war and moving toward the future with resolution and hope.
The Gettysburg Address was delivered on 19 November 1863 during a dedication ceremony that transformed the site of the Battle of Gettysburg into a national war cemetery. The Battle of Gettysburg (1–3 July 1863) is considered one of the bloodiest battles in American history. Historians estimate that fifty-one thousand soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured during the battle, more casualties than any other battle ever fought in North America. It is generally considered a turning point in the Civil War. By 1863 Americans on both the Northern and the Southern sides had come to accept that the initial expectation that the war would be settled quickly with little bloodshed was mistaken. The Confederate army had already achieved several important military victories, defeating the Union at Bull Run (21 July 1861), Fredericksburg (11–13 December 1862), and Chancellorsville (1–3 May 1863), among others. The Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) sought to build upon this advantage by invading the North at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But at the Battle of Gettysburg, the tide appeared to turn against the Confederate army, which lost approximately twenty-eight thousand soldiers, including ten thousand men in one hour during the infamous Pickett's Charge. In the end, the Union commander George Gordon Meade (1815–1872) gained the upper hand, and by 4 July 1863 the Union army had won the battle. But the Union losses were so great—approximately twenty-three thousand men—that it was a dubious honor, and only in retrospect was the victory recognized as a significant achievement for the Union.
The dead of Gettysburg were piled upon the battlefield, quickly decomposing in the hot summer air. Sanitary concerns required an immediate response, so the Union dead were initially disposed of in field graves: hastily dug, shallow graves close to where the soldiers fell in battle. (The Confederate dead were simply piled into mass, unmarked graves as was deemed appropriate for an enemy.) But sentiment and politics demanded that the dead be commemorated in a more long-lasting and honorable way. Land was purchased near the battle site and designated as a national cemetery, and thirty-five hundred Union soldiers were reinterred in graves organized in radiating semicircles according to the eighteen states whose soldiers participated in the battle.
Four months after the terrible battle, the Soldiers' Cemetery at Gettysburg (now the Gettysburg National Cemetery) was dedicated with a public ceremony. Fifteen thousand people gathered to participate, including many family members who had lost loved ones in the battle. The central speaker was Edward Everett (1794–1865), a former secretary of state, U.S. senator, and U.S. representative from Massachusetts, who was the most renowned orator in the nation. By the standards of the day, Everett's speech was a masterpiece; nineteenth-century audiences were accustomed to lengthy speeches that employed grandiose, ornate language. Everett's two-hour-long, 13,609-word speech did not fail to satisfy.
By contrast, Lincoln's speech was short and sparse, only 272 words long. Lincoln had been invited to deliver "a few appropriate remarks." He understood that Everett's speech was the main event and his own contribution was the peroration, or summing up. Nevertheless, Lincoln's speech was shockingly brief; he spoke for less than three minutes and sat down before many in the audience had realized he was through. The response to the speech was mixed. Some immediately recognized its power, including Everett, who praised Lincoln for accomplishing with such economy what he himself had required two hours to achieve. Others criticized Lincoln for his bad taste in speaking so briefly and accused him of insulting the memory of the dead. Only in retrospect has Lincoln's speech been understood as both a brilliant work of literature and a revolutionary statement of political philosophy.
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
Although it is now celebrated as a masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address was not fully appreciated by its original audience. But in 272 words, Lincoln succeeded in transforming the horrific violence of the Battle of Gettysburg into a vision for a unified American nation, built squarely upon the premise that "all men are created equal."
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.
Lincoln, "Address at the Dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery," pp. 786–788.
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS AS LITERATURE
The Gettysburg Address exemplifies the transformative power of language; in 272 words, Lincoln replaced the violence and carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg with a vision of a unified nation committed to equality. Lincoln's brevity and simplistic language is deceptive, giving the impression that the text was extemporaneous. Indeed, since the Gettysburg Address was first delivered, a rumor has spread that Lincoln wrote the speech quickly on the train from Washington, D.C., to Pennsylvania. Contrary to this myth, there are five copies of the speech in Lincoln's handwriting; this shows that Lincoln revised the text several times before and after he delivered it in 1863. It is the fifth draft of the speech, known as the "Bliss copy" after its owner Colonel Alexander Bliss, which has become accepted as the standard edition of the text.
Rather than a spontaneous response to the battle-field cemetery, the Gettysburg Address is a precisely crafted literary text that distills Lincoln's complex political ideals to their essence. The multiple drafts of the text are a testament to the care with which Lincoln composed the speech as well as his awareness of the subtle nuance of each word. The Gettysburg Address is often described as a prose poem because of the significance of Lincoln's word choices. In addition, certain lines of the address have a lyrical rhythm and regular structure that evoke the sensibility of poetry, such as: "we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow." The use of repetition in this phrase creates a rhythm that carries the audience from what they cannot do to what they must do: dedicate themselves to a government "of the people, by the people, for the people." These two phrases occur at the beginning and end of the final paragraph and thus create a unified structure that models through language what the speech seeks to accomplish through politics.
In addition to his ingenious use of rhythm and repetition, Lincoln employs powerful literary imagery, primarily in the form of antithesis or the comparison of opposites such as light/dark or new/old. Lincoln uses antithesis in the juxtaposition of birth and death; although he acknowledges that death occasions the speech, his language evokes images of birth: "brought forth," "conceived," "new birth of freedom." Thus he replaces the grim reality of the dead with the hopeful idea of rebirth and continuity. Similarly, Lincoln links the past and the future, beginning the speech with a look backwards ("Four score and seven years ago") but concluding with a repetition of active verbs that point toward the future: the dead shall not have died in vain, the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, the government shall not perish.
The complex meaning achieved by the few words Lincoln uses also draws attention to the words he did not use: North/South, Union/Confederacy, or slavery. He never mentions Gettysburg or the particulars of the battle. He never mentions the South as either enemy or challenger. It is also striking that he does not mention the other historically significant text of 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. By avoiding mention of the specific issues, participants, and events that dominated the war, Lincoln sought to transform them into types, abstract and idealistic rather than tangible and ordinary. This allows Lincoln to transcend the particulars of the war and focus upon the principles at stake. In a similar way, Lincoln employs general terms rather than proper nouns throughout: a civil war, a battlefield, any nation rather than the Civil War, the Gettysburg battlefield, the United States. This technique reflects Lincoln's knowledge of classical oratorical tradition; inspired by speeches like Pericles' funeral oration for the Athenian dead in 431 b.c.e., Lincoln sought to elevate the dead of Gettysburg into inspirational symbols. In Lincoln's formulation, the dead should be commemorated by the rededication of the living to the principles of equality and unity. Thus America itself becomes the lasting monument to the Civil War dead.
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS AS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
The Gettysburg Address is one of Lincoln's most revolutionary political speeches. Although he had been invited to simply give his approval to the creation of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Lincoln took advantage of the time and place to take a stand on the controversial issues that sparked the Civil War. Even though he does not specifically mention slavery or states' rights, the address is understood as a turning point in the development of Lincoln's thinking about these complex political debates.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln turns away from the Constitution as the document that defines the parameters of American policy. Instead, Lincoln embraces the Declaration of Independence and the phrase "all men are created equal" as the cornerstone of the nation. By looking to the declaration for guidance, Lincoln implicitly acknowledges the flaws of the Constitution, such as its provisions for the existence of slavery. The answer to the great "test" the nation is undergoing is a rededication to the original intent of the declaration. The consequences of Lincoln's statements are profound: he acknowledges the incompatibility of slavery and equality and implies that the Constitution must be amended to set the nation back on the correct path, thus anticipating the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865.
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the Gettysburg Address, the historian Gary Wills argues that Lincoln's speech was more than just a great work of oratory. Instead, he writes, the Gettysburg Address resulted in a revolutionary reconception of American identity:
The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it. . . . By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America. (Pp. 146–147)
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS IN AMERICAN MEMORY
The Gettysburg Address is celebrated as a masterpiece of American literature. Although many scholars identify Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address (1865) as his greatest work of oratory and political philosophy, it is the Gettysburg Address that remains foremost in most people's minds when they think of Lincoln. Both the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural are inscribed upon the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The association between the man and his words has worked to elevate both in American memory. As Lincoln's reputation has ascended since his death in 1865, so too have historians, literary critics, and politicians come to recognize the remarkable accomplishment of the Gettysburg Address. Continuing a long-standing tradition, every year innumerable school children across the nation still commit Lincoln's words to memory.
Even as the deaths suffered in 1863 fade from memory, the power of Lincoln's words live on. On 11 September 2002, one year after the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York governor George Pataki participated in a memorial service at Ground Zero. Rather than deliver an original speech about the terrible events of 2001, Pataki chose to read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. This employment of Lincoln's words suggests that they transcend the specific losses of the Civil War and capture instead a national experience of grief in the face of almost unimaginable violence and loss.
Lincoln, Abraham. "Address at the Dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery." 1863. In The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, with a biographical essay by Philip Van Doren Stern and an introduction by Allan Nevins, pp. 786–788. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Lincoln, Abraham. "Speech Delivered at Springfield, Illinois." 1858. In The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, with a biographical essay by Philip Van Doren Stern and an introduction by Allan Nevins, pp. 428–437. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Desjardin, Thomas A. These Honored Dead: How the Story ofGettysburg Shaped American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2003.
Einhorn, Lois J. Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr. A New Birth of Freedom: Lincoln at Gettysburg. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
Peterson, Merrill D. Lincoln in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS. The Gettysburg Address was a brief oration delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863 during the dedication ceremony of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The entire speech consisted of 272 words and took approximately three minutes to deliver. Its simple eloquence and evocation of transcendent themes are recognized as one of, if not the greatest, speech in American politics. Demonstrating the quintessence of Lincoln's thought concerning the sacred nature of liberty embodied in the democratic experiment, the address is heralded with transforming Northern opinion about the "unfinished work" of war before them and ultimately revolutionizing how Americans understood the nature of the Republic.
"On a Great Battle-Field of That War"
Since the opening days of July 1863, life in the town of Gettysburg and the surrounding area had been utterly transformed. During three days of battle, more than 85,000 Federals and nearly 65,000 Confederates clashed over a twenty-five-square-mile area. By the close of 3 July 1863 the number of dead, wounded, and missing from this single battle was unparalleled at the time. Nor would this level of destruction to human life be matched during the remainder of the war. Losses among the North's Army of the Potomac are conservatively estimated at more than 3,100 killed and approximately 14,500 wounded—more
than 2,000 of them mortally—with about 5,400 missing. Confederate casualties rates were higher. Of the 65,000 men under General Robert E. Lee's command, one-third were killed, wounded, or missing in battle. For the nearly 2,400 residents of Gettysburg, these staggering numbers proved to be nearly overwhelming. In the weeks and months that followed, the surrounding countryside served as a makeshift hospital and morgue for the region.
An estimated eight thousand human bodies, many buried with only a scant cover of earth, were scattered throughout the battlegrounds. While thousands of rotting animal carcasses were set ablaze to help alleviate potential health risks, in late August patients at the temporary hospital in the Lutheran Seminary still complained of illnesses caused by improperly buried human remains. The often-grisly task of reinterring human remains would continue through the following spring, with nearly one thousand bodies remaining unidentified.
Amid this destruction Lincoln and his two young secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, stepped off the train from Washington, D. C., to prepare for the commemoration ceremonies the following day. It is hard to imagine that the president could have envisioned that his planned remarks would elicit such purpose and meaning out of the devastation witnessed around him, but Lincoln was somehow up to the task. As one scholar has observed, the transformative power of the English language has rarely achieved such heights.
"Far Above Our Poor Power to Add or Detract"
Although through time we have come to identify Lincoln's remarks as "the" Gettysburg Address, in actuality the president was but one of five scheduled speakers to address the crowd that clear November afternoon. Such a designation would have come as a surprise to the ceremony organizers, who conceived of Lincoln's "dedicatory remarks," as they were listed in the program, as secondary to those of the day's main speaker, Edward Everett. An American statesman and scholar, Everett graduated from Harvard College in 1811 and returned to the school in 1819 as a professor of Greek. He quickly established himself as a scholar, becoming editor of the North American Review in 1820. Four years later he was elected a member of the U. S. House of Representatives. Following a decad in the House, Everett was elected governor of Massachusetts. He briefly returned to academia as president of Harvard from 1846 to 1849. Everett returned to Washington as secretary of state in 1852. The following year he entered the U. S. Senate. As one who had been schooled at the highest levels of public oratory for years, Everett—a man praised by former students such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and one of the nation's most popular orators—seemed to be a natural selection for such an important occasion. In addition to Lincoln, those scheduled to join Everett at the podium were the Reverend T. H. Stockton, who would give the opening prayer; B. B. French, who composed a hymn for the occasion; and the Reverend H. L. Baugher, who was to deliver the benediction.
Shortly after noon on 18 November 1863, Lincoln boarded the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from Washington. In Baltimore, the President's coach was switched to the North Central line, which made a brief stop in Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania. Arriving in Gettysburg at dusk, Lincoln was met by the principal organizers and participants of the dedication ceremonies. Coffins for the reinterrment of soldiers still lined the station platform when the president disembarked from the train. That evening the leader of the Union dined with Everett, who spoke of the somber scenes he had witnessed two days earlier on a tour of the battlefield. Later that evening the Fifth New York Artillery band serenaded the president and shortly thereafter, the commander in chief retired to his room to put the finishing touches on his speech. Late the following morning, Everett, Lincoln, and other dignitaries gathered on the small raised platform near the partially completed burial grounds. Tens of thousands of onlookers gathered that morning, many of them family members of the dead who had traveled long distances, waiting to hear words of consolation that would somehow make sense of the personal tragedies that had befallen them. Spoken among the poignant realities of war, Lincoln's remarks would soon transform this scene of despair and purposelessness into a symbol of national purpose and sacred cause.
"The World Will Little Note, Nor Long Remember What We Say Here"
Completing his speech, Lincoln purportedly returned to his seat suggesting to his bodyguard, Ward Lamon, that the remarks, like a bad plow, "won't scour." This myth, along with many others that emerged in the years following the address, suggest that Lincoln gave only scant time to prepare for his speech and subsequently was disappointed by its results. Lincoln's words, however, were not the result of his simply jotting down notes on the back of an envelope during his train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania; instead, the Gettysburg Address was the product of a gifted writer who over time had carefully crafted his message to give it a power and resonance that extended beyond the local residents, mourners, and curious spectators who gathered on that fall afternoon. With the exception of his contemporary partisan detractors, Lincoln's efforts were enormously successful on this account.
Historians have suggested that the president accomplished this objective by employing three principal literary techniques. The first was a compression of style. Lincoln's economy of the written word modeled itself after some of the great political orations of antiquity. This style, harkening to the past, appealed to Americans who were schooled in the classics. A second and related technique employed by Lincoln was a suppression of particulars. Despite what we assume to be the subjects of the Gettysburg Address, the speech never refers to Gettysburg or the battle in particular and it avoids any mention of the institution of slavery, the South, the Union, or the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, these issues are addressed indirectly by the speech with the theme of preservation of self-government at its center. Finally, Lincoln expressed ideas about the current crisis by using polarities. The juxtaposition of themes—for example, the acts of dedication among the living contrasted with those who have died—not only engaged the audience gathered at Gettysburg that day, but speak to the essential challenges facing succeeding generations of a nation "conceived in Liberty." In this sense the Gettysburg Address retains a timeless quality, a muse for all Americans to dedicate their lives.
Nevins, Alan. The War for the Union: The Organized War, 1863– 1864. New York: Scribner, 1971.
Peterson, Merrill D. Lincoln in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. This work remains the most thorough treatment of Lincoln's address. It is an outstanding study of the literary devices Lincoln employed to draft his speech as well as the historical context in which it was delivered.
Kent A. McConnell
See also Gettysburg, Battle of ; Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address ; Oratory ; and vol. 9: Gettysburg Address .
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The orator of the day was Edward Everett, a famed speaker, former senator, and candidate for vice president in 1860. Lincoln received a late invitation to make "a few appropriate remarks." Lincoln's brief Gettysburg address became a cornerstone of American expression of the nation's ideals, mission, and patriotism.
On the first three days of July 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, had fought the Army of the Potomac, the principal northern army, to which General George G. Meade had been assigned command only four days earlier. In early May, Lee had won a smashing victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia, over a Union force approximately twice as large, then had boldly determined to carry the war to the enemy by invading Pennsylvania. Drawn into an offensive battle at Gettysburg, Lee attacked both wings of the Union army before launching an attack on the center in the third day of fighting. That assault, led by Major General George E. Pickett, had approached success before Union forces rallied. The three-day battle cost the North 17,684 men killed and wounded; the South lost 22,638. The failure of Pickett's charge, sometimes labeled the high-water mark of the Confederacy, compelled Lee to withdraw from Pennsylvania. However, Meade failed to conduct the vigorous pursuit that Lincoln wanted.
On July 7, Lincoln had spoken to a crowd assembled at the White House to celebrate the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the key to control of the Mississippi River, which had surrendered on July 4. Lincoln gave an awkward speech: "How long ago is it?—eighty-odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal.'" Later, after rambling, Lincoln confessed that he was not prepared to make a speech "worthy of the occasion." He had, nonetheless, expressed the central theme of the Gettysburg Address, which he refined and strengthened for delivery at the cemetery.
Fiction created a legend that Lincoln wrote his speech on the back of an envelope while on the train to Gettysburg. In fact he had already written two complete drafts, later presented to his two secretaries. Another legend exists that Lincoln was sadly disappointed in the speech, especially after it drew strong criticism in newspapers. Such criticism appeared only in Democratic papers; hostile editors savaged the speech not because they thought it weak but because they recognized its strength. Republican editors and others knew immediately that Lincoln's speech was masterful.
In some 271 words, 202 of them having one syllable, Lincoln captured the meaning of the war, transforming "eighty-odd years" into the sonorous "four score and seven," using imagery of birth, death, and resurrection to move from what "our fathers brought forth … a new nation, conceived in Liberty" and dedication to the principle that "all men are created equal" to the war itself. At the cemetery, said Lincoln, lay those "who here gave their lives that that nation might live." Lincoln paid honor to the Union dead, not praising their officers, not celebrating their victory, but claiming their sacrifice for the principles of the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, he emphasized that these men had died to preserve the nation, although the war previously had been fought for the Union. Subtly, Lincoln transformed a Union of states into a national union. That nation stood for "a new birth of freedom" based on "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Lincoln unified past, present, and future into an evocation of American mission. Today, the words of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address are enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Kumhardt, Philip B., Jr. A New Birth of Freedom: Lincoln at Gettysburg. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
Warren, Louis A. Lincoln's Gettysburg Declaration: "A New Birth of Freedom." Fort Wayne, IN: Lincoln National Life Foundation, 1964.
Willis, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
John Y. Simon
See also:Lincoln, Abraham; Memorials and Monuments.
Gettysburg Address (19 November 1863)
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS (19 November 1863)
Often simply called "The Speech" among speechwriters, Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" is not only a marvel of concinnity and plainspoken grace, but also a model of a message that transcends the mundane and immediate to touch on points universal and grand. Delivered on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers Cemetery on the grounds of the Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), during which some seven thousand Americans killed one another, Lincoln's 272-word address was not even the keynote. The honor of delivering that fell to the noted public orator Edward Everett, whose impassioned, classical rhetoric rang across the recently cleared battlefield for almost two hours. Shortly after, Everett would tell Lincoln, "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's speech came at an opportune moment, one many historians consider a turning point in the American Civil War, and it was instantly regarded as a profound work of American political and literary genius.
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 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 the 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.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania , was the site of intense fighting between Union and Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War (1861–65). Over the course of three days in July 1863, forty-three thousand soldiers lost their lives during the Battle of Gettysburg . On November 19, 1863, a national cemetery was dedicated at the Gettysburg battlefield. U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) was in attendance and gave a short but eloquent speech remembered as the Gettysburg Address.
President Lincoln was not the main speaker at the dedication. His speech followed that of former secretary of state Edward Everett (1794–1865), who spoke for two hours. Lincoln's address had just three hundred words and took only a few minutes to deliver. In it, he revisited themes from past speeches. He emphasized the historical union of the nation and the words of the nation's founders that all men were created equal. He urged the nation to rededicate itself to the Union cause and confirmed his own commitment to a government of, by, and for the people.
Text of the Gettysburg Address
President Abraham Lincoln spoke these words during his Gettysburg Address in November 1863:
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 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 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 the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln's words were received by a tired crowd without much enthusiasm. Some people criticized the speech, but others immediately recognized its exceptional literary merit. The eloquent and precise poetic expressions in the Gettysburg Address make it one of Lincoln's most famous speeches.