President Lincoln at Gettysburg. Photograph from the National Archives.
“Four score and seven years ago …”
Many Americans my age had to learn that entire speech. I wonder how many students today even recognize it?
President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the national cemetery at the Civil War battlefield. After the battle in July, the town of Gettysburg planned to buy land for a cemetery and then ask the families of the dead to pay for their burial. But David Willis, a 32-year-old attorney objected to this idea and wrote Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania, suggesting instead a National Cemetery to be funded by the states. Governor Curtin authorized the purchase of 17 acres for a cemetery to honor those lost in the battle.
Willis and the planning committee originally planned to dedicate the cemetery on Wednesday, October 23, and invited Edward Everett, who had served as Secretary of State, U. S. Senator, U. S. Representative, Governor of Massachusetts and president of Harvard University, to be the main speaker. Everett, who was a widely known and respected as an orator, replied that he would be unable to prepare an appropriate speech in such a short period of time, and requested that the date be postponed. Willis and the committee agreed, and the dedication was postponed until Thursday, November 19.
It was then that President Lincoln was invited — he received his invitation on November 2.
Everett delivered a two-hour formal address at Gettysburg. President Lincoln spoke a little over two minutes, surprising many by the shortness of the speech and leaving many others quite unimpressed. Over time, however, his speech, ending with the words “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has come to symbolize the definition of democracy itself.
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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot 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.
Abraham Lincoln – November 19, 1863