Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address

Lincoln at Gettysburg
When the Battle of Gettysburg was fought and the armies marched away, the small town was left with thousands of dead and wounded to deal with. At first all that could be done was to bury the men in crude and shallow graves. But the Northerners wanted to do for the soldiers that had fallen on their homeland, in one of the greatest Union victories thus far in the war. A committee was formed of men from all the states who had soldiers fight there. A hilltop cemetery had been an important Union position during the battle, so it was natural that a portion of this hill would be turned into a cemetery and memorial for the Union dead. The committee moved fast. 17 acres were purchased, and less than five months later they were ready to commemorate the Soldier's Cemetery.

Lincoln's handwritten draft of the speech
The main speaker for the event was Edward Everett, an important Massachusetts figure who had served as governor, ambassador to Great Britain, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and President of Harvard. For nearly a decade he had toured the country as an orator. When the ceremony was held, 150 years ago today, Everett gave a two hour speech, but today very few remember what he said. For after him rose President Abraham Lincoln, whose two minute speech is one of the most famous in American history. Lincoln said:
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 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 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.
The next day Everett wrote to Lincoln, saying, “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.” Reactions to the speech different, based primarily upon the politics of the commentators. The Republican Chicago Tribune wrote “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man,” while the Democratic Chicago Times said, “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”1 The southerners, of course, thought very little of it. The Lynchburg Virginian said, “Really, the ignorance and coarseness of this man would repel and disgust any other people than the Yankees . . . What a commentary is this on the character of our enemies.”2

New York Times article on the address
Those who agreed with Lincoln would come to see it as one of the greatest statements of why the war was fought. A few years later newspaper editor Horace Greeley wrote, “I doubt that our national literature contains a finer gem than that little speech at the Gettysburg celebration....” 3 Republican senator Charles Sumner said, “The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are more than battles."4

Today the Gettysburg Address is regarded by many as one of the foundational statements of American government, ranking in importance with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Some have called it the founding document of a second American revolution. In many ways these analysis are true. The Address is a concise statement that declares that American changed during the Civil War. It experienced a “new birth,” and the debate over what that birth entailed continue in the country to the present day.

1.Contemporary Reactions, Cornell University: The Gettysburg Address http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/gettysburg/ideas_more/reactions_p1.htm.
2.Virginians' Responses fo the Gettysburg Address, 1863-1963 by Jared Elliott Peatman, 2006. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-04162006-004530/unrestricted/peatman.pdf. p. 39.
3.The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: May 1891, to October 1891. (New York: The Century Co., 1891) p. 380.
4.The Life of Charles Sumner by Jeremiah Chaplin and J. D. Chaplin (Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1874) p. 421.


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