“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…”
It’s been over twenty years, and I can still remember these words. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Millions of school children recite these lines in classrooms all across the country each year, making Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ one of the most famous and recognizable of all historical speeches.
And while I can still quote it (or at least part of it), and I’m sure you can too, perhaps what’s less well-known is the story behind the speech.
What we now know as ‘The Gettysburg Address’ was delivered on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the infamous Battle of Gettysburg. This particular clash happened near the town of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania in early July of that same year and resulted in the largest number of casualties in the entire Civil War, with approximately 50,000 soldiers perishing in the three-day battle. However, it also marked the turning point of the conflict, as the Union scored a decisive victory over the Confederacy and halted General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. In November, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery to the fallen Union soldiers. It was during this ceremony that his most famous speech was given.
Only, Lincoln wasn’t the keynote speaker. He wasn’t the headliner. His presence was a mere formality, a request by David Wills, of the committee for the November 19 Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, that “as Chief Executive of the nation, [ you ] formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”
A ‘few appropriate remarks.’ After the music, the prayer, the oration, and more music, the President was to simply come on stage, give a ‘few appropriate remarks,’ then move aside for the closing music and prayer. Two minutes, and his job was done. He was “the closer,” to put it in modern-day terms.
And it was good thing. During the train ride from Washington D.C. to Gettysburg on November 18, Lincoln remarked that he felt dizzy and weak; those traveling with him noted his “ghastly color.” Nevertheless, after resting at David Wills’ house, he arose the next morning and, even though still feeling ill, proceeded to the ceremony.
The headliner of the day was Edward Everett, an American politician, pastor, educator, diplomat, and popular orator. In fact, he was possibly the best-known public speaker at the time, and he had been asked to deliver the main speech for precisely that reason: Everett was sure to draw a crowd in a way that shy, quiet, and at times awkward Lincoln certainly would not.
And come they did. Over 15,000 people arrived to listen to Everett’s speech and see the dedication of this newly consecrated ground. After music from the Birgfeld’s Band, a prayer from Reverend T. H. Stockton, and more music from the Marine Band, Everett came to the stage and delivered a 13,607-word, 2-hour long speech from memory in which he detailed the Battle of Gettysburg, comparing it to famous battles of antiquity, and likened the creation of the United States to the rise of the great Greek republic. He stressed how, in many of the great conflicts of the past, opposing sides were able to come together in spirit of reconciliation, and expressed faith the United States would soon be able to do the same.
It was a powerful speech. A beautiful speech, full of allegory, lessons from the past, and hope for the future.
Afterwards, Everett took his seat, and the Baltimore Glee Club took the stage to sing the hymn, “Consecration Chat.” Finally, a pale-faced Lincoln came to the podium.
A ‘few appropriate remarks’ was all he was instructed to give. And that’s exactly what he delivered:
“Four score 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 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.“Abraham Lincoln
10 sentences. 272 words. Despite being interrupted five times for applause, the entire speech lasted only 2-3 minutes.
Lincoln never uttered an explicit word about the Union, the Confederacy, or even Gettysburg itself. And yet these are the words–rather than Everett’s 2-hour long oratory–that resonated with people both then and now. They are the words remembered, recited, and revered. Their power comes not only from their brevity, but from their challenge to people–and this country–to rise to a higher standard. Although the Civil War was fought for a variety of reasons, including tariffs, taxes, and states’ rights, the issue of slavery has come to dominate how history remembers the conflict–thanks in a large part to Lincoln’s speech, which brought the notion of civil rights to the forefront, forcing people to wrestle with the ideals upon which our nation was founded and the practices which are in direct contradiction to them. He was pushing for reunification but a reunification built upon the principles of truth and equality.
Despite being given in an age before recording devices, many newspapers were able to print Lincoln’s speech in its entirety, due to its short yet powerful nature. Everett’s speech, on the other hand, was only excerpted and has been largely confined to the history books.
After giving his speech, Lincoln boarded the 6:30 PM train headed for Washington, D.C. By this time, he was feverish and weak, complaining of a massive headache. He was bedridden for three weeks when he arrived home; in addition to these symptoms, he also broke out in a severe rash. It was later discovered he was suffering from smallpox, albeit a milder and more survivable form than that which afflicted so many at the time.
Thankfully Lincoln soon recovered. By that time, his remarks at Gettysburg had spread like wildfire across the bruised and bloodied continent, spreading hope to a war-weary nation. This short, poignant speech, delivered at the tail end of a ceremony in a weakened, feverish state, remains one of the most quoted, remembered, and respected addresses in American history.