Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Ranks as the Greatest Speech in American History
The Gettysburg Address was delivered by President Abraham Lincoln, on 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.
His carefully crafted address is regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history. In just over two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union sundered by the secession crisis, with "a new birth of freedom," that would bring true equality to all of its citizens, ensuring that democracy would remain a viable form of government and creating a nation in which states' rights were no longer dominant.
The website Learn Out Loud lists these speeches as the most famous in American History:
2. I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King, August 1963.
3. Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, Patrick Henry.
4. Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, June, 1968.
5. D-Day Pre-Invasion Address to Soldiers, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 1944.
6. On Women’s Right to Vote by Susan B. Anthony, 1872.
8. The Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy, 1961.
10. I've Been to the Mountaintop, Martin Luther King, April 1968.
Ten Famous Speeches in American History at Learn Out Loud
Richard Nordquist, in About.com, writes of Abraham Lincon’s Gettysburg addess, “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.
Lincoln's (voice) 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
The 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.
Beginning with the now-iconic phrase "Four score and seven years ago," referring to the Declaration of Independence during the American Revolution in 1776, Lincoln examined the founding principles of the United States in the context of the Civil War, and memorialized the sacrifices of those who gave their lives at Gettysburg and extolled virtues for 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 and location of the speech are 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.
This is the text of the speech:
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.
"The Words That Remade America: The significance of the Gettysburg Address," by Garry Wills.
Letter of David Wills inviting Abraham Lincoln to make a few remarks, noting that Edward Everett would deliver the oration
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 to speak. 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
"In American History, November 19, 1863, might be considered a day of wind and fire.The place was the Gettysburg battlefield, four and a half months after the bloody and pivotal victory of the Union's Army of the Potomac over Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The event was the dedication of a cemetery for those who had died on those rolling fields. The wind was a two-hour speech by Edward Everett, a renowned orator and former senator from Massachusetts. And the fire was a dedication by President Abraham Lincoln that followed, a speech hardly more than two minutes in length. Like an ember left over from the conflagration of battle, it has warmed the nation's collective memory ever since."
The New York Times article (PDF) from November 20, 1863 (PDF), indicates Lincoln's speech was interrupted five times by applause and was followed by "long continued applause."
One eyewitness to the speech later day, "I was close to the President and heard all of the Address, but it seemed short. Then there was an impressive silence like our Menallen Friends Meeting. There was no applause when he stopped speaking." According to historian Shelby Foote, after Lincoln's presentation, the applause was delayed, scattered, and "barely polite."
In contrast, Pennsylvania Governor Curtin recalled , "He pronounced that speech in a voice that all the multitude heard. The crowd was hushed into silence because the President stood before them...It was so Impressive! It was the common remark of everybody. Such a speech, as they said it was!" Reinterment of the bodies buried from field graves into the cemetery, which had begun within months of the battle, was less than half complete on the day of the ceremony."
William R. Rathvon is the only known eyewitness of both Lincoln's arrival at Gettysburg and the address itself to have left an audio recording of his recollections. One year before his death in 1939, Rathvon's reminiscences were recorded on February 12, 1938, at the Boston studios of radio station WRUL, including his reading the address, itself, and a 78 rpm record was pressed. The title of the 78 record was "I Heard Lincoln That Day - William R. Rathvon, TR Productions." A copy wound up at National Public Radio (NPR) during a "Quest for Sound" project in 1999. NPR continues to air them around Lincoln's birthday.
Visit your local library to obtain these and other resources:
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words
Ronald C. White Jr., (2005).
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.
Garry Wills, (1992).
Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words
Douglas L. Wilson, (2006).
Lincoln's greatest speech : the second inaugural
Ronald C White, (2002).
Incidents of the war. A harvest of death, Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Federal soldiers on battlefield. Negative by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United November 1863
by Alexander Gardner (1821–1882) .
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