Words That Echoed Down The Decades

Hatless in the center, Lincoln delivers his famous Gettysburg Address
Hatless in the center, Lincoln delivers his famous Gettysburg Address

by Ray Setterfield

November 19, 1863 — The Gettysburg Address, in which President Abraham Lincoln spoke of all men being created equal and “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was delivered on this day.

It took place at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four and a half months after the pivotal American Civil War battle there.

The short speech had more dynamic impact following, as it did, a two-hour oration (yawn!) by Edward Everett, one-time Secretary of State. John Hay, a close friend of the President, recorded how Lincoln wrote the speech:

“Lincoln was very silent all the previous evening after dinner. No one else being present he walked to and fro in his room apparently thinking deeply. He went to bed early, and when he came down to breakfast he looked unwell, and said he had slept little.

“On the train [to the cemetery] he was silent for a considerable while, and then he asked me for some writing paper. On his knee he then wrote out his speech in full, exactly as it has come down to us.

“The impression left on me was that Lincoln was merely transcribing from memory the words he had composed during the night.

“When we reached the battlefield Lincoln was nervous and apparently not well. Everett spoke eloquently but very long. Then Lincoln rose, holding the papers he had written on the train.

“He did not read, but spoke every word in a clear, ringing, resonant, vibrating voice. His speech occupied only a few minutes in delivery.

“It was listened to with breathless attention and when it came to an end there was at first no cheering, but an audible indrawing of deep breath as from an audience that had been profoundly moved.

“In the silence of the next moment Everett leapt to his feet again and said, as nearly as I can remember, this: ‘We have just listened to a speech that will live through the ages’.”

The speech famously began:

"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 battle-field 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."

Lincoln ended the speech:

"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 speech, just 272 words long, came to be recognised as a masterpiece of prose poetry, and the next day Everett wrote to Lincoln: “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.”

Published: September 4, 2017

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