Almost all Americans have read “The Gettysburg Address,” but few have actually paid much attention to it. For years, it was included in the front or back-matter of dictionaries to show the use of copy-editing marks. It is often held up as a wonderful example of public oratory, and professors of history, speech, and rhetoric have written articles on the sources of the words and imagery, most of them groping for something to say. In truth, it owes nothing to Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” to the tedious productions of American “speechifiers,” or to the Bible. It is sui generis. The main speech of the day took two hours to deliver. Lincoln’s—and he had been asked to provide only a few remarks—took two minutes. The main speech of the day began: “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year . . . [blah, blah blah].” Lincoln’s moved directly to the point, and what he says is not conventional, but profound.
There are five copies of the address in Lincoln’s hand, and they differ somewhat in small details of wording and punctuation. The “Bliss Copy” is generally accepted as the standard, but the version given below is that of the New York Times, which appeared on Nov. 20, 1863, the day after the speech was made. In some ways, such a version is more authentic than one which Lincoln has “improved” for republication, and it also gives some idea of how the audience responded. It was prepared from the short-hand notes taken by the reporter who was present. (I have only corrected a few obvious errors, some of which were probably created by the typesetter: the use of a period instead of a comma after “dedicate”; the ungrammatical comma before “what we say here”; and the use of “refinished” instead of “unfinished.”)
“Fourscore 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. [Applause.] 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 are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting-place of 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 power to add or detract. [Applause.] The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. [Applause.] It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far nobly carried on. [Applause.] 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 here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain; [applause] that the Nation shall under God have a new birth of freedom, and that Governments of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth. [Long continued applause.]”
To see what this is really about, look at the first two sentences. Lincoln focuses on one of the central weakness of a democracy: will people who are free to make choices remain united despite differences of opinion? Notice the generality with which he states this: “testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived . . . can long endure.” America, as Lincoln saw it, was a precious political experiment, one almost unique in history, and this war was a test of whether such an experiment could succeed anywhere in the world. This broad view of the significance of the war is also revealed in the last sentence when he describes the “cause” for which the soldiers have died at Gettysburg: it is to prevent government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” from perishing “from the earth.” He isn’t talking narrowly about this government, but about an idea, about such government. What he says bears echoes of the point Thomas Paine made in 1776, “the cause of America is in great measure the cause of mankind.” The precious and fragile philosophical experiment that was American democracy, and which has been a guiding light for the world, was being threatened by secession.
This address isn’t merely conventional sentiment uttered on an important occasion. And it isn’t merely an attempt to raise the spirits of those who supported the war. It brilliantly evokes the reason for fighting such a war in the first place, puts the losses at Gettysburg into that context, characterizes the sacrifice that the soldiers have made in almost religious terms, calls for increased devotion to the cause for which they died, and characterizes that cause in a way that shows its ultimate importance, not just for America, but for the world. And it does this in 271 words. It is probably the greatest speech ever made.
Note It is often said that there was no response to the address, that the crowd was silent and Lincoln didn’t know whether it had been a success or not. This account makes it clear that it was very well received. What about abolition? Wasn’t the Civil War being fought to free the slaves? Yes and no. The war had to do, in part, with the economic future of the country-—with two competing economic systems, the industrial North and the agricultural South contending for power in Congress. Without the issue of slavery, the war might not have occurred so soon, but narrowly put, the purpose for fighting was not simply to eliminate slave-owning in the South. It was to keep the South from destroying the Union, and it was inevitable after the South attacked Fort Sumpter. As Lincoln said in a letter to Horace Greeley on Aug 22, 1862: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing all of the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” It should be noted that his Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves in the areas that were still in rebellion. It was a political measure. Would the slaves have been freed without the Civil War? Eventually. The world was slowly becoming more liberal. The British had banned slavery in Britain in 1807 and throughout the empire in 1833. Some countries of Latin America-—where the Indians had been enslaved before Africans were imported-—banned slavery as well, Argentina in 1813, Colombia in 1821, and Mexico in 1829. Matters were more complicated in the US because slavery was a key part of the economy of the Southern half of the country, though it had been abandoned in the North early in the century: it was no longer profitable there. As has been noted, there was a slow ethical awakening, one in which the Quakers played no small part both here and in Britain. (If the South had not relied on slavery as it did, the end of slavery would have come much sooner.) To some extent, economics often shapes ethics. This fact is embodied in that old saw about the right or wrong of something depending on whose ox is being gored. This is understandable, given what we are, but every person of good will must regret it.