Seven Score and Nine Years Ago…
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered two-minutes of remarks — around 270 words — to some 15,000 listeners at the dedication of a new national military cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Although the morning was foggy and bleak, by noon the sun broke through bathing the crowd that gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield where, from July 1 to July 3 Confederate and Union forces met in a bloody confrontation that generated the most casualties of any battle in the war and made the South’s eventual defeat certain.
A military band played. A local preacher gave a lengthy invocation.
The headliner at the ceremony was Edward Everett, a Massachusetts educator and former politician known for both the quality of his speeches and his gifted delivery. He raised $70,000 through speechmaking to preserve George Washington’s former home at Mount Vernon.
Everett spoke for more than two hours, not uncommon at the time, describing the great detail battle fought four-and-one-half months ago. True to form, Everett elicited tears more than once from his audience.
After Everett, it was Lincoln’s turn. He pulled his speech from his coat. The speech was written in Washington before Lincoln took the train to Gettysburg. (Think of train rides today; imagine how difficult it would be to write even a short speech in longhand in a bumpy rail car? Let alone on an envelope.)
There are only 10 sentences in Lincoln’s speech. He doesn’t dwell on the details or the war or the battle of Gettysburg. He says nothing of slavery. Or the Union and the Confederacy.
He says the United States is anchored on the principle that all men are created equal and that we should honor those who died for that principle and continue fighting for that same principle in the future.
A photographer was setting up his camera while Lincoln spoke and many in the audience missed the president’s remarks.
Everett sent Lincoln a note saying, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
Lincoln wrote Everett back:
“Your kind note of today is received. In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.
“The point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose principals are the states, was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for the national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel-ministering to the suffering soldiers surpasses, in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before.
“Our sick boy, for whom you kindly inquire, we hope is past the worst.
Your Obt. Servt. – A. Lincoln”
“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.”
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