“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.” So begins the Gettysburg Address, 272 words that have been called “the world’s foremost statement of freedom and democracy.”
President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Address 150 years ago today, standing on a platform at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He spoke to a crowd of 15,000 people, his message lasting less than three minutes. Contrary to popular legend, he composed the speech in Washington, not on the train ride to Gettysburg.
His remarks at Gettysburg were intended to be brief, in contrast to Edward Everett’s two-hour oration. He wrote every word himself. In fact, unlike every president but Jefferson, Mr. Lincoln composed every speech he delivered without the aid of speechwriters or advisers.
The president predicted that the “world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Critics were happy to oblige him. For instance, Pennsylvania’s Patriot & Union stated, “We pass over the silly remarks of the president. For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” Last week the paper finally printed a retraction, admitting that its editorial “failed to recognize the momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance” of the speech.
The Gettysburg Address is the most-quoted speech in American history. Garry Wills, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning study, called the speech “words that remade America.” On that battlefield in Pennsylvania, Abraham Lincoln redefined the Civil War as a battle not just over slavery or states’ rights, but as a call to “a new birth of freedom.” It is a call our nation needs to hear again today.
In the last five decades, the number of couples in America living together outside marriage has increased tenfold; violent crime has grown sixfold; our nation has redefined marriage and family; the number of Americans who have no religion has grown tenfold. What would Mr. Lincoln say about our moral and spiritual state?
Some friends and I recently toured Gettysburg, retracing the battle and considering its significance. We stood where the crowd gathered to hear the Gettysburg Address. I considered its closing words: “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.” And I renewed my commitment to the moral and spiritual renewal of the nation Mr. Lincoln served and for which so many have died.
Will you join me?