Abraham Lincoln, 150 years ago today, began his address in Gettysburg:
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.
With only 9 more sentences he dedicated a new national cemetery, summed up the battle that had taken place there some four months earlier, cast a vision for the future of the Union, and harkened back to the Declaration of Independence four score and seven years previously when Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal.”
The 3-day Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 had been the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War with at least 46,000 casualties among the 160,000 troops. It did not end the war, but occurred just past the middle of the almost 4 year conflict. Nevertheless, it was a decisive victory for the North and served as a turning point, putting the South on the defensive for the rest of the War Between The States. This conflagration represented the largest number of casualties of any American war in history, because both sides were counted in the total.
President Lincoln had been invited two weeks before the dedication to deliver ”a few appropriate remarks” and arrived by train with an unfinished speech in his pocket written in ink on Executive Office stationary. He completed it in pencil the next morning, but it was not intended to be the main speech. That was given by the famous orator Edward Everett who spoke at noon for two hours. The crowd had been prepared ahead of time that Lincoln would give a “short, short, short” address. No one was expecting that the brief speech would define that day, indeed the war and would go down in history as another chapter of American scripture, memorized by school children, recited publicly every year. But Everett suspected as much, writing to Lincoln the next day “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.”
There are somewhere between 3 and 5 “official” copies of the address, each with slight differences in style. Lincoln wrote a draft in Washington and finished it in Gettysburg, but those present recollected that he did not read from the written copy. A reporter from the Associated Press took down the words in shorthand and it was transmitted by telegraph across America. And Lincoln revised his draft when he returned to D.C. according to his own recollection.
Many writers have noted the parallels between Lincoln’s address and that of Pericles’ Funeral Oration recounted during the Peloponnesian War in Thucydides’ 5th century BC history of that war. It looks back to ancestors, notes the present day, and called attention to the unique democracy of the State. But Lincoln’s language was not classical but religious, using phrases like “new birth” and “under God.” He ended it:
…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.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian