Memorial Day is an appropriate time to reread Abraham Lincoln’s sublime Gettysburg Address honoring Civil War dead.
Lincoln spoke Nov. 19, 1863. The occasion was the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four months after the Union Army defeated the Confederates at the decisive Battle of Gettysburg.
The carefully crafted address, a model of brevity and eloquence, came to be regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history.
In 269 words delivered in just over two minutes, Lincoln invoked the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and redefined the Civil War as a struggle not merely for the Union, but as “a new birth of freedom.”
Beginning with the now-iconic phrase “Four score and seven (87) years ago,” Lincoln referred to the events of the American Revolution and described the ceremony at Gettysburg as an opportunity not only to dedicate the grounds of a cemetery, but also to consecrate the living in the struggle to ensure that “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, its exact wording is 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 most commonly accepted version:
“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 were 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.”