The Gettysburg Address: In Fewer Than 300 Words, President Lincoln Managed to Recast the Civil War in a New Light and Give the Nation a "New Birth of Freedom"

By Brown, Bryan | New York Times Upfront, September 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Gettysburg Address: In Fewer Than 300 Words, President Lincoln Managed to Recast the Civil War in a New Light and Give the Nation a "New Birth of Freedom"


Brown, Bryan, New York Times Upfront


President Lincoln wasn't even the featured speaker at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 19, 1863. Yet his Gettysburg Address, which lasted less than three minutes, is considered one of the most important speeches in American history.

The battle at Gettysburg that July was a turning point of the Civil War (see p. 16). It helped pave the way for the Union's victory over the Confederacy, but it came at a high cost: 50,000 men dead, wounded, or missing on both sides.

Edward Everett, a famous orator, gave the main memorial address. He spoke for two hours in soaring language about the battle and the courage of Union soldiers.

But Lincoln's simple remarks are what we remember 150 years later. He invoked images of birth and rebirth and stressed the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Americans came away from Lincoln's speech with a new understanding of the nation's purpose.

"By accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed," writes historian Garry Wills. "Because of it, we live in a different America."

Here's a look at some of Lincoln's key points.

Fourscore 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. …

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