November 19th is a special day to me. First and foremost, it’s my husband’s birthday. Although he’s very low-key and doesn’t make a big deal about his birthday, it’s special to me. Each year we’re together and celebrate this event becomes more precious as the years pass.
But as a former history teacher and someone who still has a passion for history, November 19th is also the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, which I consider the most brilliant American speech ever given.
The Battle of Gettysburg, fought the first three days in July of 1863, became the turning point of the American Civil War. The devastating loss of life and injuries to soldiers affected both sides, but the South didn’t have the population needed to replace the thousands of men lost in Pennsylvania. After this bloody battle, the Confederacy fought a defensive war, always on the run from Union forces.
President Abraham Lincoln was invited to speak at the afternoon dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Surprisingly, he wasn’t the featured attraction on the bill! That honor belonged to the leading orator of the day, Edward Everett. He spoke first to the assembled crowd in a speech that clocked in at 13,607 words and lasted two hours. Everett’s speech made newspaper headlines the next day, receiving accolades for his skill and the speech’s content.
After the Marine Band played a hymn, Lincoln rose and stepped forward. He spoke only ten sentences, barely speaking two minutes. Reviews? They were mixed, at best. Yet the president’s words deeply moved Everett, who wrote to Lincoln the very next day, saying, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Personally, I like—and respect—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because it’s to the point. His simple language is precise, crafted for brevity, yet it flows like a magical river of honey. He captures the ideas that honor both the roots of our nation’s birth and those who gave their very lives at Gettysburg in hope the ideals of freedom would live on through their sacrifice.
Lincoln left five copies in his own handwriting of these ten sentences, each with slightly different text. He composed two of those copies before that November day at the cemetery, and both reside in the Library of Congress now. The first draft went to his personal secretary, John G. Nicolay, with the first page on White House stationery and the second on a different type of paper stock. White House assistant John Hay received the second draft, which noted the president’s handwritten changes. Both men accompanied Lincoln to Pennsylvania and witnessed him giving his brief address.
The remaining three copies Lincoln wrote out all were used in fundraising efforts to aid soldiers. These copies are displayed in the Lincoln Room in the White House, at his presidential library, and at Cornell University. The copy known as the Bliss version is what most historians refer to as the official text since it’s the only one Lincoln signed his name to.
I admire Lincoln as a man and a president, and I think November 19th is a perfect day to remember him as both. And because I love the beauty of his writing (especially in a day when most politicians do not write their own copy, much left craft it as lovingly as Abraham Lincoln did), here are his words once again:
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 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.