Most scholars agree that a short speech given exactly 150 years ago today is the most memorable in American history. And because it is also one of the most famous speeches of all time, it deserves to be remembered by all of us. Obviously, it is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address given on Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery just south of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
One source says of the Gettysburg Address that it is “one of the finest examples of English public oratory.” Even the main speaker, the famed orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours on that long ago day, recognized the importance of Lincoln’s remarks. The next day he wrote to Lincoln, “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.”
Although Lincoln was essentially a self-educated man, having had less than a year of formal education, the depth of his intellect can be seen in the Gettysburg Address in which he summarized the purpose of the war in only ten brilliantly crafted sentences. Folklore notwithstanding, Lincoln did not dash off his speech on the back of an envelope on his way to the dedication. He actually worked very hard on what he planned to say doing several re-writes in the days leading up to November 19th.
In the book written by Garry Wills, “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” Wills analyzes the composition and construction of Lincoln’s famous remarks. He points out the similarities between Lincoln’s remarks and “Pericles’ Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War as described by Thucydides.”
Lincoln’s intelligence was hardly that of an uneducated country bumpkin!
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of those “few appropriate remarks” he was asked to give, almost as an afterthought by the event organizers, it’s time for all of us to be reminded of not only the power of what Lincoln wrote, but also the enduring meaning it had, both then and now – his reference to the Revolution, which had taken place just eighty-seven years before, (four score and seven years ago), his review of the basic principles of the nation within the context of the Civil War, his commemoration of the sacrifices made by those who had died to preserve the Union, and his plea to the nation to make sure America’s representative democracy would survive. It is almost as though Lincoln is speaking to us, today, about the importance of protecting the principle of representative democracy – that’s why it is so important for us to remember his words and their meaning.