November 19, 2010

Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

From The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a new cemetery to honor the 23,000 Union soldiers and 20,000 Confederates who had been newly reburied months after the battle. The organizers had invited the most popular poets of the day to write something in honor of the occasion, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant all declined. So the keynote speaker was Edward Everett, known for his speeches about battlefields. Lincoln was invited only as an afterthought, but he hoped to use the occasion to explain why he thought this horrific war was still worth fighting.

About 15,000 people showed up that day, and the festivities began with a military band. A local preacher offered a long prayer, and then Edward Everett stood up and spoke for more than two hours, describing the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.

When Everett was finished, Lincoln got up, and pulled his speech from his coat pocket. It consisted of only 10 sentences, just 272 words, did not mention any of the specifics of the war or any of the details of the battle, did not mention the North or the South, and did not mention slavery. What he said was that our nation was founded on the idea of equality, and the war was being fought over that idea. And he ended by saying, "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."

The audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down, many people in the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. But Edward Everett later told the president, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."