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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln

Pres. Lincoln(in highlighted circle) at Gettysburg Commemoration 1863. Photo from Wikipedia.

Pres. Lincoln(in highlighted circle) at Gettysburg Commemoration 1863. Photo from Wikipedia.

This week marks the battle of Gettysburg 151 years ago in during the American Civil War. It was the northernmost major engagement and one of the bloodiest, taking place in western Pennsylvania and lasting 3 days(July 1st-3rd 1863). The speech by President Abraham Lincoln was given 4 months later(November) when the cemetery was dedicated at the site of the battle. The star of the day was intended to be Edward Everett, an orator with celebrity status, who gave a speech lasting over 2 hours. By contrast, Lincoln’s speech was about 2 minutes long and was over before many realized he had begun talking.
The Gettysburg Address has one of the most famous opening lines, “Four score and seven years ago…”, a Biblical way of invoking 1776, when America began. This was deliberate, to show that the war was about ideas which had been present at the country’s founding. Quoting the line from The Declaration of Independence that “…all men are created equal”, Lincoln insists it can be taken literally, to include people of all races, not just the wealthy white ones. That line was also part of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, an outcome of Thomas Jefferson working with General LaFayette in 1789. President Lincoln alludes to the Founders again with the very last line of the Address, expanding on the Constitution’s “We the People…”
There are other subtle Biblical references, most notably to the idea of “a house divided against itself cannot stand”(Matt. 12:25), a theme he had used years before as a candidate for senator. The meaning of sacrifice is woven through the entire speech and the suggestion of “…a new birth…” such as baptism, also has religious connotations.
What struck me most upon reading the speech was the humility; at the death of all those soldiers, the lofty ideas they were fighting for and how much farther the fight had to go. For the outcome, at that point, was by no means certain. The War Between the States had already gone on for 2 years and still had nearly two more to go, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering the same month President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. In fact, Lincoln expressed his doubts, “…testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” And though his tone is weary, he also puts the burden upon the living to carry on the fight, “the great task…”, for the ideas that are not only our heritage, but the reason all those soldiers died. He was reminding the audience that they were commemorating not only the loss of those lives, but also the meaning of it.
Only in hindsight can we see the irony of “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”, considering that this speech is why we remember Gettysburg. There were larger and more decisive battles in the Civil War, but this is probably the most well known. And it’s legacy is not only that remembrance, but also the lesson that great oratory is usually not long winded, but contains great truths, which sparkle like gems.

You can read a text of the speech at this link

6 comments on “The Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln

  1. CFisher
    June 30, 2014

    So much thought was put into those few words, that whole books have been written about them. Thank you for this lovely piece.

  2. Hilary
    June 30, 2014

    Thank you from me too, Jackie – this was very moving, and informative for me, as I know something of the significance of the Address, but little of its context.

  3. ABB
    July 1, 2014

    Thanks for this essay, Jackie. On a related theme, I strongly recommend the recent movie “Lincoln”, starring Daniel Day Lewis. It starts with a scene that uses the Gettysburg address as its central trope. A great movie about a major historical figure and his times.

  4. Kate
    July 2, 2014

    Thanks to you I read the text of the speech for the first time. I’m sure its been studied and critiqued many times. My mite is that its rhetorical power comes from a strong American voice (word choice and placement). I can’t imagine a Brit saying those things in those words.

  5. Jackie
    July 7, 2014

    What a surprising comment Kate!

  6. sshaver
    July 16, 2014

    Every American student should memorize it. As well as George Bush. So different from “Mission Accomplished.”

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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