On this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania what would become his most famous speech, destined to be memorized and/or recited by innumerable schoolchildren and others. This is supremely ironic considering that the speech itself contains the words: “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here”.
There would also grow up around the speech a mythical story of how it came about, namely that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope on the train en route to Gettysburg. While is it certainly possible that Lincoln worked a little on his speech during the trip – he often continued refining his words right up to the time of delivery – he had likely written the bulk of it before leaving Washington.
Lincoln’s custom was to begin composing major speeches several weeks or even months ahead of time, and to draw upon themes and ideas about which he had been thinking for some time. Although his address at the Gettysburg battlefield would be short – just “a few appropriate remarks” to dedicate a national military cemetery – it would be a very important one. During the first two and a half years of his presidency, Lincoln had spoken publicly outside of Washington, DC on only three occasions, each one spontaneous and brief. The address at Gettysburg would be his opportunity to speak to the American people about the significance of the Civil War in the context of the nation’s past, present, and future. The President wanted, and needed, to get it right.
Some proof of this is found in Lincoln’s famous opening line. Earlier that summer, in response to a serenade following news of the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg, which had come directly on the heels of the great Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln had said: “How long ago is it? – eighty odd years – since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal’”.
Speaking at Gettysburg, this “eighty odd years …” now became:
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.
After this summary look back to the past – specifically to the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation on the bases of liberty and equality – Lincoln turned his attention to the present:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
Events of the previous decades indeed suggested that modern nations established as republics or democracies were destined to fail. One needed only to look to central and South America, where nation after nation had secured its independence in the early 19th century only to later fall into political chaos and instability. Neighboring Mexico was a prime example, having been taken over by French Emperor Napoleon III less than two years before.
Lincoln next directed the attention of his audience to the main objective of the ceremony that day: to honor those Union soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice during the terrible battle of July 1-3:
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.
Whether Lincoln really felt that his words would not be remembered – this is probably just his characteristic understatement and humility – he no doubt believed that the soldiers’ deeds were more important than his words. The war might have been won without his words, but it could never have been won without their deeds.
Having looked to the past and considered the present, Lincoln concluded by looking to the future: how should we who remain respond?
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.
Lincoln’s hope was that just as we had had a birth of freedom in 1776 – “four score and seven years” before – now, out of something so terrible as a bloody civil war, we might have a “new birth of freedom”. And he again reminded the people that the struggle wasn’t just for the survival of the Union, but for the survival of democracy throughout the world: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
That last phrase was not entirely Lincoln’s; most people listening that day would have recognized that he was reformulating Daniel Webster’s famous description of the US government in 1830 as “the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” But Lincoln’s more concise phrasing has contributed to its now-universal impact. As just one example, when the people of France adopted a new Constitution in 1958 for their Fifth Republic, they included the following statement: “The principle (of the Republic) shall be: government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. [“Son principe est : gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple.”]
Lincoln’s eloquent and memorable words at Gettysburg live on today, more than 150 years later. While they may have helped to rouse and inspire the people of his day, let us not forget that it was the soldiers’ courageous deeds which ultimately won the war and preserved the Union. As is said, after all, actions speak louder than words, or as the motto of the naval ship USS Gettysburg puts it: “Deeds Not Words”. May we remember Lincoln’s words and be willing to speak up for the causes of liberty, equality, and democracy in our own day, but may we also remember the soldiers’ deeds and likewise be willing to act when called upon.
Kevin J. Wood
November 19, 2017