The teacher walked to the chalkboard and wrote “The Gettysburg Address" in large letters. She then turned to the class and said, “Johnny, do you know Lincoln's Gettysburg Address?"
Johnny turned pale. With a gulp, he slowly stammered, “No, ma'am. I thought Lincoln lived in Washington!"
OK, so that's an old joke, but we like it! The Gettysburg Address the teacher was referring to is one of the most famous speeches in all of American history. Delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, the Gettysburg Address was only 272 words and lasted a mere two minutes. Yet it lives on to this day as a powerful example of Lincoln's way with words.
More than four months after Union soldiers defeated their Confederate counterparts at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, the Soldiers' National Cemetery where the dead from that great and decisive battle were buried was dedicated. Several people were invited to speak at the dedication ceremony.
After a two-hour speech about the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg by Edward Everett, a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, President Lincoln stood and addressed the crowd of 15,000 people. The beginning words of the Gettysburg Address have been memorized by countless people since they were first spoken: “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."
In only two minutes, Lincoln brought to mind the principles first set forth in the Declaration of Independence. In addition to acknowledging the sacrifices made by the soldiers who perished in the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln redefined the Civil War as more than just a struggle to preserve the Union: it was also a struggle for the principle of human equality.
This was a radical idea at the time. White slave owners had long pointed to the fact that the Constitution did not prohibit slavery. Instead of pointing to the Constitution, however, Lincoln pointed to the Declaration of Independence as the true measure of the Founding Fathers' intent that the new nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Lincoln also urged his listeners to “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." Ironically, Lincoln also modestly noted that, “[t]he world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."
To the contrary, Lincoln's words at Gettysburg live on as arguably the speech most often quoted and memorized by students and scholars alike. In the words of Senator Charles Sumner, Lincoln “was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it."