Today, back in 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Penn. The speech was delivered almost five months after the Union defeated the Confederates on that bloody battlefield.
In the aftermath of the bitterest, most contentious and venomous presidential election in the history of our nation, I think it’s worth taking the time to reread it:
“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 battle-field 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.”
Remarkably, historians disagree on the precise wording of the speech! In fact, contemporary newspaper transcriptions differed from each other. And Lincoln himself did little to help the situation as five copies of the speech hand-written by Lincoln differ from each other! Lincoln gave copies to each of his two private secretaries, and later he wrote three additional versions of the speech for charities. However, he titled, signed and dated only one copy (known as the “Bliss copy”), so that one is traditionally considered the definitive version.
And, as proof that there is nothing new under the sun or in American politics, reaction to this, one of the greatest speeches in human history, was generally split along partisan lines. The Democratic-leaning Chicago Times wrote, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Meanwhile, the Republican-oriented New York Times sang its praises, and the Springfield Republican reprinted the entire speech and called it “a perfect gem” that “deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma,” going on to predict that Lincoln’s address would be studied in the future “as the model speech.”
The U.S. Civil War took an unimaginable toll on our nation. According to the American Parks Service, which administers the Gettysburg National Cemetery:
“The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, generally estimated at 620,000, is approximately equal to the total of American fatalities in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined.
The distinguished Civil War historian James McPherson has estimated that there were 50,000 civilian deaths during the war, and has concluded that the overall mortality rate for the South exceeded that of any country in World War I.”
As a final interesting historical footnote connected to this address, Lincoln was reported to be feeling dizzy and sick on the day of the speech. While he was delivering his remarks, Lincoln’s face was described by John Hay, one of his private secretaries, as having “a ghastly color.” Lincoln returned to Washington that evening and fell ill, diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox.