Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the most quoted speeches in American history. The text is brief, three paragraphs amounting to less than 300 words. It only took Lincoln a few minutes to read it.
It’s unclear how much time he spent writing it, but analysis by scholars over the years tells us that Lincoln used extreme care. It was a heartfelt and precise message he very much wanted to deliver at a moment of national crisis.
The Gettysburg Address Was Intended as a Major Statement
The Battle of Gettysburg had taken place in rural Pennsylvania for the first three days of July in 1863. Thousands of men, both Union and Confederate, had been killed. The magnitude of the battle stunned the nation.
As the summer of 1863 turned into fall, the Civil War entered a fairly slow period with no major battles being fought. Lincoln, very concerned that the nation was growing weary of a long and very costly war, was thinking of making a public statement affirming the country’s need to continue fighting.
Immediately following the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, Lincoln had said the occasion called for a speech but he was not yet prepared to give one equal to the occasion.
And even before the Battle of Gettysburg, famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley, in late June 1863, had written to Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay to urge Lincoln to write a letter on the “causes of the war and the necessary conditions of peace.”
Lincoln Accepted an Invitation to Speak at Gettysburg
At that time, presidents did not often have the opportunity to give speeches. But the opportunity for Lincoln to express his thoughts on the war appeared in November.
Thousands of Union dead at Gettysburg had been hastily buried after the battle months earlier, and they were finally being properly reburied. A ceremony was to be held to dedicate the new cemetery and Lincoln was invited to offer remarks.
The main speaker at the ceremony was to be Edward Everett, a distinguished New Englander who had been a US Senator, Secretary of State, and president of Harvard College as well as a professor of Greek. Everett, who was famed for his orations, would talk at length about the great battle the previous summer.
Lincoln’s remarks were always intended to be far more brief. His role would be to provide a proper and elegant closing to the ceremony.
How the Speech Was Written
Lincoln approached the task of writing the speech seriously. But unlike his speech at Cooper Union nearly four years earlier, he did not need to undertake extensive research. His thoughts about how the war was being fought for a just cause had already been set firmly in his mind.
A persistent myth is that Lincoln wrote the speech on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg as he didn’t think the speech was anything serious. The opposite is true.
A draft of the speech had been written by Lincoln in the White House. And it’s known that he also refined the speech the night before he delivered it, at the house where he spent the night in Gettysburg. So Lincoln put considerable care into what he was about to say.
November 19, 1863, the Day of the Gettysburg Address
Another common myth about the ceremony at Gettysburg is that Lincoln was only invited as an afterthought, and that the brief address he gave was nearly overlooked at the time. In fact, Lincoln’s involvement was always considered a major part of the program, and the letter inviting him to participate makes that evident.
The program that day began with a procession from the town of Gettysburg to the site of the new cemetery. Lincoln, in a new black suit, white gloves, and stovepipe hat, rode a horse in the procession, which also contained four military bands and other dignitaries on horseback.
During the ceremony, Edward Everett spoke for two hours, delivering a detailed account of the great battle which had been fought on the ground four months earlier. Crowds at that time expected long orations, and Everett’s was well received.
As Lincoln rose to give his address, the crowd listened intently. Some accounts describe the crowd applauding at points in the speech, so it seems that it was well received. The brevity of the speech may have surprised some, but it seems that those who heard the speech realized they had witnessed something important.
Newspapers carried accounts of the speech and it began to be praised throughout the north. Edward Everett arranged for his oration and Lincoln’s speech to be published in early 1864 as a book (which also included other material related to the ceremony on November 19, 1863).
Significance of the Gettysburg Address
In the famous opening words, "Four score and seven years ago," Lincoln does not refer to the United States Constitution, but to the Declaration of Independence. That is important as Lincoln was invoking Jefferson's phrase that "all men are created equal" as being central to the American government.
In Lincoln's view, the Constitution was an imperfect and always evolving document. And it had, in its original form, established the legality of slavery. By invoking the earlier document, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln was able to make his argument about equality, and the purpose of the war being a "new birth of freedom."
Legacy of the Gettysburg Address
The text of the Gettysburg address was widely circulated following the event at Gettysburg, and with Lincoln's assassination less than a year and a half later, Lincoln's words began to assume iconic status. It has never fallen out of favor and has been reprinted countless times.
When president-elect Barack Obama spoke on election night, November 4, 2008, he quoted from the Gettysburg Address. And a phrase from the speech, "A New Birth of Freedom," was adopted as the theme of his inaugural celebrations in January 2009.
Of the People, By the People, and For the People
Lincoln's lines at the conclusion, that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth" has been extensively quoted and cited as the essence of the American system of government.