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The Enduring Greatness of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Gerry Bowler Reflects on 160 Years


Any list of the greatest speeches in history must include the Sermon on the Mount, Pericles’s Oration on the Athenian Dead, Winston Churchill’s offer of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” and the 271 words Abraham Lincoln uttered on Nov. 19, 1863.

In the third summer of the American Civil War, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee led an invasion of Union territory, striking into Pennsylvania with his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee hoped that victory on Northern soil would encourage the government in Washington to lose heart and come to terms with the secessionist states of the South.

To counter Lee’s incursion, Gen. George Meade concentrated the forces of the Unionist Army of the Potomac at the town of Gettysburg. There, after three days of intense fighting, Lee’s grey-clad troops were defeated and forced to retreat back southward. This was the bloodiest battle of the war with as many as 50,000 dead lying scattered across the fields and hillsides. It marked a turning point in the conflict and the beginning of the end to Confederate hopes for an independent, slave-owning state in North America.

It took months to gather up the bodies of the fallen soldiers and inter them in a National Cemetery close to the battle site. To dedicate the opening of that graveyard, President Abraham Lincoln was told by organizers that it was their desire “that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” In other words, Lincoln was not the main speaker at the dedication: the official Oration was to be delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts politician and diplomat famed for his public speaking skills.

On the afternoon of Nov. 19, 1863, after a prayer and some musical selections, Everett held forth for two hours. In the course of 13,000 words, he gave a minutely-detailed history of the war to that point, a microscopic analysis of the three days of battle, a salute to women, and a lengthy constitutional analysis of why the Confederate cause could justly be called a rebellion, ending with a discussion of how a post-war reconciliation was possible. It was a remarkable piece of oratory—full of rolling phrases, classical allusions and grand rhetorical flourishes—but it is little remembered today because of the two-minute talk Lincoln gave moments later.

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His speech consisted of only 10 sentences, beginning: “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.” Lincoln explained that the dead of Gettysburg had already hallowed the ground by their sacrifice and that it was now the task of the living to complete their work, so 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.” The president had thus framed the Battle of Gettysburg in the highest possible terms: that it had not been only a defence of Union territory but also part of a struggle to preserve democracy itself.

Immediate reaction to Lincoln’s remarks was mixed. There was only scattered applause by the crowd, probably because few listeners anticipated so short a speech. Lincoln himself seemed to be uncertain of the effect of his words but was reassured by Everett’s compliments. Democratic-leaning newspapers and foreign correspondents were harsh in their assessment. The Chicago Times criticized “the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” The Times of London sneered that the “ceremony [at Gettysburg] was rendered ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”

History has been kinder to the Gettysburg Address. The president had said that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” but that was not the case. His words are inscribed in marble on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, memorized in schoolrooms, and have served as a model for speeches by politicians ever since.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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