On an autumn day on this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech that only took a few minutes and was a mere ten sentences long. The most famous photo of the speech shows Lincoln stepping down after finishing, because the photographer had assumed the speech would last longer than it did.
The Gettysburg ceremony took place to dedicate a new national cemetery several months after the July 1-3 battle that left around 50,000 soldiers injured or dead. Organizers invited Lincoln to deliver a few remarks after the main oration by Edward Everett, a former Secretary of State, Governor, and Senator. Everett spoke for two hours, while Lincoln took only a few minutes to deliver his ten sentences. Newspaper reviews for the President’s speech at the time were mixed, often along partisan lines, but soon people recognized how his ten sentences defined the war and the nation.
Gary Wills in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, as well as others, note historical parallels between the language of the speech and Greek sources, the Bible, etc. One of my favorite connections was noted today by James Hume, who was a speechwriter for Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. He wrote that when Lincoln was ten, a farmer loaned Lincoln a book, Mason Weems’ Life of George Washington. After the book was significantly ruined by rain that had leaked into the cabin, Lincoln had to work off the book by pulling tree stumps, and then the waterlogged book became one of the boy’s few possessions. A page that was still legible showed a picture of Washington at a Valley Forge memorial with the inscription, “That these dead shall not have died in vain.” The 54-year-old Lincoln incorporated those words into his famous speech.
It took me twelve sentences to tell the above background story. Lincoln defined a nation in ten.
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.
Often, Lincoln actors have deep booming voices — with one exception being Henry Fonda’s wonderful portrayal in the movie Young Mr. Lincoln. But Lincoln actually had a high-pitched voice, so the recording below done by Jeff Daniels — where he also realistically seems to be sort of yelling as Lincoln would have had to do at the event without artificial amplification — is probably more accurate than most simulations.
For those of you who prefer your information in Powerpoint, click here.