President Lincoln’s most famous speech of 10 poetic sentences was at first received along partisan lines, but it is now regarded as one of the best in American history.
On this day in history, November 19:
President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863, four months after Union forces vanquished Confederate troops on the bloody battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the major turning point in the American Civil War.
The townsfolk of Gettysburg built a cemetery for the dead soldiers, who numbered 28,063 Confederates and 23,049 Federals after the three-day battle. A local attorney then invited Lincoln to offer a “few appropriate remarks” after the main speech by Edward Everett, a renowned orator. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 assembled in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for two hours before Lincoln’s remarks, which lasted only two or three minutes.
Afterward, the Chicago Times wrote of Lincoln’s speech: “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances.” But on June 1, 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, the well-known abolitionist, said: “That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg … and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act.”
The Gettysburg Address
“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 … can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield 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 cannot dedicate … we cannot consecrate … we cannot 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.”
Speech Celebrated American Revolutionary Ideals
The speech was radical because it celebrated “a new birth of freedom” for the American Revolution’s ideals of equality and democratic government over the compromises of the Constitution, which sanctioned the subjugation of enslaved African-Americans in law. After the Gettysburg Address and the end of the war, the Constitution was changed to include the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.
The Thirteenth Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The Fourteenth Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
And the Fifteenth Amendment proclaims: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude … The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Battle of Gettysburg Was Turning Point in Civil War
The battle of Gettysburg was the major turning point in the Civil War. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, had pushed into the North to pressure President Lincoln to end the war.
On July 1, 1863, Lee’s army met the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Major General George Meade, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After two days of fierce fighting, Lee ordered a charge of about 12,000 men into the heart of the Union army. “Pickett’s Charge,” named for Major General George Pickett, ended in disaster. The devastated Confederate army retreated south the next day and never again advanced in any significant way into the North.
This battle proved to be a decisive factor in the Union’s ultimate victory in the war two years later. And the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln delivered in his high-pitched, Kentucky twang, was soon widely hailed as an exceptional, poetic piece of writing and one of the greatest speeches ever made in the United States.