The Gettysburg Address: Perspectives on Lincoln's Greatest Speech

The Gettysburg Address: Perspectives on Lincoln's Greatest Speech

The Gettysburg Address: Perspectives on Lincoln's Greatest Speech

The Gettysburg Address: Perspectives on Lincoln's Greatest Speech

Synopsis

It is the most famous speech Lincoln ever gave, and one of the most important orations in the history of the nation. Delivered on November 19, 1863, among the freshly dug graves of the Union dead, the Gettysburg Address defined the central meaning of the Civil War and gave cause for the nation's incredible suffering. The poetic language and moral sentiment inspired listeners at the time, and have continued to resonate powerfully with groups and individuals up to the present day. What gives this speech its enduring significance?

This collection of essays, from some of the best-known scholars in the field, answers that question. Placing the Address in complete historical and cultural context and approaching it from a number of fresh perspectives, the volume first identifies how Lincoln was influenced by great thinkers on his own path toward literary and oratory genius. Among others, Nicholas P. Cole draws parallels between the Address and classical texts of Antiquity and John Stauffer considers Lincoln's knowledge of the King James Bible and Shakespeare. The second half of the collection then examines the many ways in which the Gettysburg Address has been interpreted, perceived, and utilized in the past 150 years. Since 1863, African Americans, immigrants, women, gay rights activists, and international figures have invoked the speech's language and righteous sentiments on their respective paths toward freedom and equality. Essays include Louis P. Masur on the role the Address played in eventual emancipation; Jean H. Baker on the speech's importance to the women's rights movement; and Don H. Doyle on the Address's international legacy.

Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg in a defining moment for America, but as the essays in this collection attest, his message is universal and timeless. This work brings together the foremost experts in the field to illuminate the many ways in which that message continues to endure.

Excerpt

November 19 is a sacred day at Gettysburg. The village welcomes what seems to be its entire population—along with hundreds of out-of-town visitors—for the annual commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest speech. Each and every November 19, a solemn celebration takes place inside the town’s eternally haunting Soldiers’ cemetery. The great Lincoln reenactor James Getty dons frock coat and stovepipe hat to intone the Address impeccably. Prayers are invoked. A local baritone sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The ceremony is as predictable and comforting as a religious service. Only the “sermon” changes. For generations, as historian Thomas Desjardin points out in his essay for this book, leading American orators have journeyed here on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address to try providing the definitive appreciation of the most famous speech in American history by offering one of their own.

Inevitably most fall somewhat short in comparison. After all, how can anyone approach the sublime mastery of Lincoln’s original? How can anyone express the full essence of the Gettysburg Address, when scholars have variously traced its origins and inspirations—as other contributors to this book will remind us—to everything from classical oratory (Nicholas Cole) to native democratic ideals (Sean Wilentz), to reigning political eloquence (Craig Symonds) to American philosophical originality (Dean Grodzins) and to the unavoidable pall of wartime death and suffering (Chandra Manning, Mark Schantz). So many roots to trace; so many inspirations to consider. It is no wonder that while scores of latter-day Gettysburg orators have tried, they have usually less than overwhelmed the vast audiences that reliably attend these yearly events in the eternal hope of hearing another immortal Gettysburg Address. Yet still they come, the crowds and the guest speakers alike. Of course, it took Abraham Lincoln three tries to get it right himself.

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