There are many great speeches that accompany transformative moments in American history—inaugural speeches, declarations of war, and campaign speeches are but a few. Inside that list, however, is a shorter list of speeches that are remembered for a few phrases or a particularly inspiring sentence or two, such as John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech containing the line, “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In that same tier of oratory one might also find such passages and snippets as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to dedicate a cemetery at the place where, less than five months before, the Union and Confederate armies had engaged in a tremendous battle. Few speeches in American history carry the resonance of President Lincoln’s speech that day.
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 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. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot 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.
Like Lincoln himself these words contain a universal compassion toward those in conflict and an attempt to come to peace with the horrors of war. Lincoln’s words offer solace—The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it—and his words also implore the nation to be ready to take care of the unfinished work of this abject war—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. In an oratory that takes only a couple of minutes to read, Lincoln also unites the nation with his culminating imperative 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 Gettysburg Address is astonishing in its simplicity, noteworthy for its brevity, and a landmark in American oratory because of its content. When Lincoln rose to the platform that November day, he did so after Edward Everett, statesman from Massachusetts and former president of Harvard University, had spoken for two hours. Lincoln spoke for about two minutes.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery