Saturday, June 30, 2012

History Friday: The Gettysburg Address

I can see your eyes glazing over already.  But bear with me; with a little context, and by taking the time to know the speech - really know it - you'll love it like I do.

It's taught in such a flat way: schoolchildren are taught to remember it for the week they studied it, so they could copy the requisite 40-word sample and be graded on every 'the' and 'but' - and, at least in any classroom I was in, it was never taught as a speech, as a thing that was designed to be spoken rather than read and rote memorized.

In fact when people are asked, "What do you know about the Gettysburg Address," they'll start in with the Four Score and Seven Years Ago bit and maybe make it all the way to "conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," if you're lucky.

But what do you know - really know - about the speech?

Well first of all, President Lincoln was there kind of as a bit player; the star of that particular show was Edward Everett, known as the preeminent orator of his time.  The President was there to close the ceremonies with "a few fitting remarks," after a two-hour speech by Everett.  This actually suited Lincoln just fine; historians suggest that he was suffering the very first symptoms of smallpox during the train ride to Gettysburg and during the speech. The idea of the day was to dedicate a Union cemetery at the site of the battle of Gettysburg, which remains to this day, by the way, the single deadliest American battle, with 57,225 dead (counting USA and CSA casualties both as American, of course). The central message of the speech, though, was political in nature; that the living need to stay dedicated to the cause of the war effort.  The Chicago Tribune, a paper with leanings against the Republican party, panned it, in fact calling it uninspiring and accusing the President of being a bumpkin - they called the speech "...the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."

But this speech was so much more than flat words on a flat piece of paper.  The speech was given by the President, who by his very nature has to be a strong speaker. Towards the middle of the speech, the remarks stop being a dry recitation of fact, and the oration, according to those who bore witness and wrote about it, increased in passion as the speech went on and ended in a stirring crescendo of thundering emotion.

For such a short speech, consider just how many phrases found their way into the national lexicon. I bet you have heard most or all of these snippets, even if you didn't know where they came from:

  • Four score and seven years ago
  • It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this
  • ...we cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow - this ground
  • Far above our poor power to add or detract
  • (referring to soldiers who laid down their lives for the war) ...who gave the last full measure of devotion
  • 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
  • ...that this nation, under god, shall have a new birth of freedom
  • ...government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth
And when spoken, those words, those words that perhaps you know already, leap off the page and into the heart of anyone on either side of the aisle who would call himself "Patriot."

Here it is in its entirety, with a few of my comments in end-notes:

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,1 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 detract2

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here3. 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 advanced4. 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.


1 "That nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated" is a reference to the first paragraph, where he speaks of our "new nation" and how it was conceived and dedicated. His use of "that" to refer back to his previous words is a little archaic now, which unfortunately hinders free and easy comprehension.

2 This paragraph to me is breathtaking in its emotional impact. It conveys the futility of the living consecrating land for the dead, while acknowledging that notwithstanding its futility, it's still the right thing to do ("it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this"). And once again it conveys this thundering emotion with an economy of words that is astounding.

3 Well, he was wrong here, wasn't he.

4 This is the political part of the speech; he's telling the people that they need to keep the faith, convincing them that this war is just, and that the material and human costs of the war are worth it.


Despite the harsh words from the Chicago Tribune, the speech was universally acknowledged, even at the time, as being rousing, moving, and important beyond its immediate purpose of dedicating a cemetery. US Senator Charles Sumner said of the speech that "...the world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech."

I'm not one for re-enactments but I found this clip and you should watch it, because I think it reinforces the fact that the Gettysburg Address was not an essay; it was a speech, a living breathing thing that was delivered with passion and emotion.


  1. last night I found out that the battle of Gettysburg was really determined by finding a way to kill the Vampires before they could change the tide of the war drastically out of favor for honest Abe.

    1. At the risk of sounding like an East Coast academic elitist, I find few things more reprehensible than painting President Lincoln with the same brush as a high-schooler named Buffy. That's just me, though.

  2. I spent a day at Gettysburg. I was foolish. It takes more than one day to see and take in everything. The good news? Gives me an excuse to go back.

    1. Dig that. I've actually never been, and I'd dearly love to.

  3. Once again, you knock it out of the park.

    Good stuff G-Man!

    1. Thanks Duck. It was tougher than I thought, using the written word to describe the passion of a speech. I appreciate your kind words as always!

  4. Gary - my dad would have loved talking with you. He enjoyed so much digging into things and really "groking" them, like you and the Gettysburg address.

    I dragged Skip off to a half day at Gettysburg about 6 years ago. We first went to the museum and watched the presentation with a huge, light-up map that showed the course of the battle from little round top to Pickett's charge. I had done a lot of reading about the Civil War before the trip and it gave me a real thrill to see in person little round top, devil's den and "the high water mark of the Confederacy." It gave me a much deeper appreciation for the kind of battles that were fought as part of Gettysburg and how terrifying and risky it was for the combatants of both sides, but most particularly the Confederates. I highly recommend the trip.

  5. Cranky, that's awfully nice of you to say, thanks very much. And yes, I'd just love to go.

  6. Like Grouchie said, where are the Vampires?

    1. He fucking killed them all. With an axe, apparently. Not my first approach but c'est la guerre.