Next Tuesday is a significant anniversary in the history of our country. It is the sesquicentennial of one of the most famous speeches ever delivered in American history. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stood and delivered a brief speech at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The major speech of the day was a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, former Congressman, Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, and Ambassador to Great Britain. But it was Lincoln’s simple, and brief, statement that has gone down in history as the Gettysburg Address.
The speech was a master work of genius. In only ten sentences, he managed to summarize the meaning of the entire war. In a case of “understatement of the century,” Lincoln stated that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” It turns out that the world did not remember Everett’s words (indeed, the average American could not even tell you that Everett spoke there). But the sacrifices at Gettysburg are known by every schoolchild in America. And the preamble of “Four score and seven years ago. . . “can be recited by almost every American. The full text reads:
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 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.
Ken Burns is filming a PBS documentary on a school in Vermont that requires all of its students to memorize and deliver the address each year. He has also issued a challenge to all Americans to learn the words to the address in time for the 150th anniversary next week. He has filmed famous people giving the address, from Rita Moreno and Whoopi Goldberg to all living U.S. presidents. He is also encouraging everyday American to film themselves delivering the address. The recordings will be added to his Learn the Address website along with those of the presidents and others. What a fantastic way to honor the sacrifices made by our ancestors during the Civil War!