By Paul W. Barada
---- — 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.
Almost as an aside, it’s interesting to note that in Lincoln’s view there was never a “Confederate States of America” at all. His position was that the Union was still intact and that the people of those eleven southern states were merely “in rebellion” against the federal government. Furthermore, it was Lincoln’s belief that there was no Constitutional right for any state to leave the Union. This view of the nature of the Republic colored his thinking throughout the rebellion. Further proof of this point-of-view can be seen in the title of the huge multi-volume “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.”
Every student in this country should be required to study Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – not just memorize a few sentences without any understanding of what each one means and how important this speech is to a basic understanding of what it means to be an American. Lincoln’s speech is part of our unique heritage that should be remembered, lest we lose forever the freedom he so eloquently promised.
Here is exactly what Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, said on November 19, 1863. Read it and be thankful:
“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 can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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.”
That’s –30—for this week.