On this day (Nov. 19) in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, which has become the most well-known and oft-quoted speech in American history.
In this artfully crafted speech, which he delivered in less than three minutes, the president gracefully restated, in simple but eloquent terms, the principles on which the United States was founded – principles that were first enunciated in the Declaration of Independence 87 years previously.
Beginning with the Biblically-sounding phrase “Four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln reminded his audience that “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
He proclaimed that the Civil War, then raging, was a test to determine “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” He went on to say that “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should ... dedicate a portion” of the Gettysburg Battle field “as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
On Oct. 17, 1863 (a little more than three months after the bloody July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg), the Union army had started the reburial of the more than 3,100 Union soldiers killed in that bloody battle in the newly created Gettysburg National Cemetery.
The committee in charge of the Nov. 19 dedication of the cemetery had invited the well-known orator, Edward Everett, to give the main oration. Then, on Nov. 2, committee member David Wells (who would be Lincoln’s host during his brief stay in Gettysburg), seemingly almost as an after-thought, invited Lincoln, “as chief executive of the nation, to formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” Lincoln’s 10-sentence “few appropriate remarks” have become, of course, his most famous speech.
Everett’s two-hour speech, which was delivered just prior to Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks,” was reportedly greeted with frequent applause. However, Lincoln’s shorter oration, according to some eyewitnesses, was greeted with almost total silence, although a Nov. 20, 1863, New York Times article claimed that Lincoln’s speech was interrupted five times by applause and was followed by “long continued applause.”
Interestingly, in a letter to Lincoln written the day after the dedication, Everett wrote that “I shall 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 famously and optimistically concluded his speech with the immortal words “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.”
In the middle of his 266-word address, Lincoln had claimed that, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here ...” He obviously was mistaken in this assertion. As abolitionist Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner stated in his famous June 1, 1865, eulogy on the slain president, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.: Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.