Notes on "The Gettysburg Address" by Abraham Lincoln

The Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg Address is a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and is one of the most well-known speeches in United States history.[1] It was delivered by Lincoln during the American Civil War, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Abraham Lincoln's carefully crafted address, secondary to other presentations that day, came to be regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history. In just over two minutes, Lincoln invoked the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and redefined the Civil War as a struggle not merely for the preservation and holding together of the Union, "which had been split by the secession crisis",[2] but as "a new birth of freedom" which in a new Union would bring true equality to all of its citizens, which would ensure that democracy would remain a viable form of government, and which would also create a unified nation in which states' rights were no longer dominant.
Beginning with the now-iconic phrase "Four score and seven years ago," referring to the American Revolution of 1776, Lincoln examined the founding principles of the United States in the context of the Civil War, and used the ceremony at Gettysburg as an opportunity not only to consecrate the grounds of a cemetery, but also to exhort the listeners (and the nation) to ensure the survival of America's representative democracy, that the "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Despite the speech's prominent place in the history and popular culture of the United States, the exact wording of the speech is disputed. The five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address differ in a number of details and also differ from contemporary newspaper reprints of the speech.
Following the July 1–3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg, reburial of Union soldiers from the Gettysburg Battlefield graves began on October 17. The committee for the November 19 Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg invited President Lincoln: "It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks." Lincoln's address followed the oration by Edward Everett, who subsequently included a copy of the Gettysburg Address in his 1864 book about the event (Address of the Hon. Edward Everett At the Consecration of the National Cemetery At Gettysburg, 19th November 1863, with the Dedicatory Speech of President Lincoln, and the Other Exercises of the Occasion; Accompanied by An Account of the Origin of the Undertaking and of the Arrangement of the Cemetery Grounds, and by a Map of the Battle-field and a Plan of the Cemetery).
During the train trip from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg on November 18, Lincoln remarked to John Hay that he felt weak. On the morning of November 19, Lincoln mentioned to John Nicolay that he was dizzy. In the railroad car the President rode with his secretary, John G. Nicolay, his assistant secretary, John Hay, the three members of his Cabinet who accompanied him, William Seward, John Usher and Montgomery Blair, several foreign officials and others. Hay noted that during the speech Lincoln’s face had ‘a ghastly color’ and that he was ‘sad, mournful, almost haggard.' After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30pm train for Washington, D.C., he was feverish and weak, with a severe headache. A protracted illness followed, which included a vesicular rash and was diagnosed as a mild case of smallpox. It thus seems highly likely that Lincoln was in the prodromal period of smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg address.
Text of Gettysburg Address
Shortly after Everett's well-received remarks, Lincoln spoke for but a few minutes.With a "few appropriate remarks", he was able to summarize the war in just ten sentences.
Despite the historical significance of Lincoln's speech, modern scholars disagree as to its exact wording, and contemporary transcriptions published in newspaper accounts of the event and even handwritten copies by Lincoln himself differ in their wording, punctuation, and structure. Of these versions, the Bliss version, written well after the speech as a favor for a friend, is viewed by many as the standard text. Its text differs, however, from the written versions prepared by Lincoln before and after his speech. It is the only version to which Lincoln affixed his signature, and the last he is known to have written.
“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.”
Importance of the Speech
The importance of the Gettysburg Address in the history of the United States is underscored by its enduring presence in American culture. In addition to its prominent place carved into a stone cella on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Gettysburg Address is frequently referred to in works of popular culture, with the implicit expectation that contemporary audiences will be familiar with Lincoln's words.
In the many generations that have passed since the Address, it has remained among the most famous speeches in American history, and is often taught in classes about history or civics. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is itself referenced in another of those famed orations, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, King began with a reference, by the style of his opening phrase, to President Lincoln and his enduring words: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice."
Phrases from the Address are often used or referenced in other works. The current Constitution of France states that the principle of the Republic of France is "gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple" ("government of the people, by the people, and for the people,") a literal translation of Lincoln's words. Sun Yat-Sen's "Three Principles of the People" were inspired from that phrase as well. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln has as its ship's motto the phrase "shall not perish"

Facts and Myths About the Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From a platform set some distance away from the ongoing burial operations, Lincoln addressed a crowd of 15,000 people.
The president spoke for three minutes. His speech contained just 272 words, including the observation that the "world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Yet Lincoln's Gettysburg Address endures. In the view of historian James McPherson, it stands as "the world's foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them."
Over the years, historians, biographers, political scientists, and rhetoricians have written countless words about Lincoln's brief speech. The most comprehensive study remains Garry Wills's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon & Schuster, 1992). In addition to examining the political circumstances and oratorical antecedents of the speech, Wills dispels several myths:
  • The silly but persistent myth is that [Lincoln] jotted his brief remarks on the back of an envelope. . . . In fact, two people testified that Lincoln's speech was mainly composed in Washington, before he left for Gettysburg.

  • Though we call Lincoln's text the Gettysburg Address, that title clearly belongs to [Edward] Everett. Lincoln's contribution, labeled "remarks," was intended to make the dedication formal (somewhat like ribbon-cutting at modern "openings"). Lincoln was not expected to speak at length.

  • Some later accounts would emphasize the length of the main speech [Everett's two-hour oration], as if that were an ordeal or an imposition on the audience. But a talk of several hours was customary and expected then.

  • Everett's voice was sweet and expertly modulated; Lincoln's was high to the point of shrilless, and his Kentucky accent offended some eastern sensibilities. But Lincoln derived an advantage from his high tenor voice. . . . He knew a good deal about rhythmic delivery and meaningful inflections. Lincoln's text was polished, his delivery emphatic, he was interrupted by applause five times.

  • [T]he myth that Lincoln was disappointed in the result--that he told the unreliable [Ward] Lamon that his speech, like a bad plow, "won't scour"--has no basis. He had done what he wanted to do.
Above all it's worth noting that Lincoln composed the address without the aid of speechwriters or advisers. As Fred Kaplan recently observed in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (HarperCollins, 2008), "Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached."
Words mattered to Lincoln--their meanings, their rhythms, their effects. On February 11, 1859, two years before he became president, Lincoln delivered a lecture to the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College. His topic was "Discoveries and Inventions":
Writing--the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye--is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it--great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. . . .

Its utility may be conceived, by the reflection that, to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.
It's Kaplan's belief that Lincoln was "the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders."