Documents & Debates: The Gettysburg Address at 160 Years

November 15, 2023

Documents & Debates: The Gettysburg Address at 160 Years

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The Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19th, 1863, is one of the most iconic and revered speeches in American history. In just 272 words and a little over two minutes, Lincoln eloquently captured the essence of the American idea, paying homage to the principles of liberty, equality, and the enduring legacy of the American nation. This article will delve into the background, significance, and the profound message conveyed in this historic address.

The Battle of Gettysburg

Lincoln’s speech is rooted in the midst of the American Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place from July 1st to 3rd, 1863. This battle was a pivotal moment in the conflict, marking the turning point for the Union forces and the high watermark of the Confederacy’s advance into Northern territory. The battlefield was soon designated as a national cemetery, where fallen soldiers would find their final resting place.

An Unexpected Speaker

Abraham Lincoln was not the primary speaker at the Gettysburg Cemetery dedication. The main speaker was Edward Everett, a renowned Harvard professor and orator of his time. Everett delivered a two-hour-long speech from memory, demonstrating the art of oratory. In contrast, Lincoln’s address was concise, lasting just over two minutes. It was a stark contrast to the audience, who had just witnessed a marathon oration. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s brevity and eloquence left an indelible mark on history.

The opening lines of the Gettysburg Address are some of the most recognizable words in American history: “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.”

  • Historical Reflection: “Four score and seven years ago” harkens back to the founding of the nation, marking 87 years since the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
  • Conciseness and Clarity: Lincoln’s use of short, Anglo-Saxon words in this paragraph emphasizes the simplicity and universality of the American ideals. The language is accessible to all, reinforcing the idea that the American dream is within everyone’s grasp.
  • Equality and Liberty: Lincoln’s words encapsulate the core values of the United States, emphasizing liberty and equality as the bedrock principles upon which the nation was conceived.

The Proposition of Equality

Lincoln’s address is a powerful tribute to the idea that all men are created equal. This principle, derived from the Declaration of Independence, underscores the nation’s commitment to individual rights and freedoms. Lincoln reminds us that this idea is not mere rhetoric but a foundational truth, a proposition that America must continually uphold.

A Call to Unity

In the midst of a devastating civil war, Lincoln’s words carry a profound message of unity. He urges the nation to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s vision is clear: a united, indivisible nation that upholds the ideals of liberty and equality for all.

The Enduring Legacy

The brevity and clarity of the Gettysburg Address make it a timeless masterpiece. Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom” resonates throughout history, reminding us of the ongoing experiment in self-government and the enduring significance of the American dream.

The Gettysburg Address, a mere 272 words delivered over two minutes, stands as a monumental tribute to American ideals. It encapsulates the nation’s history, values, and a vision of unity during a turbulent period. Lincoln’s message of liberty, equality, and the enduring legacy of the American experiment continues to inspire and remind us of the profound principles upon which the United States was founded.

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