The Gettysburg Address is one of the most important speeches in United States history. It was given by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. It begins with the famous phrase 'Four score and seven years ago...'
The Battle of Gettysburg took place in Pennsylvania in July 1-3 of 1863. The Union forces, led by General George Meade, were on the defensive, and held the line against the assaulting Confederate army of General Robert E. Lee. Lee's plan had been to push North into Union territory, and put pressure on Philadelphia.
At Gettysburg, those plans were dashed, as a great Confederate infantry charge, known as Pickett's Charge, failed, and the Union forces won the battle. Today, the battle is considered to be the turning point in the Civil War, allowing the Union, which had been losing up to that point, to gain the advantage. An estimated 50,000 men died from both armies in the three-day battle, which was the largest loss of life in any battle in the war.
Four months after the battle, with the Civil War still raging, President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg. He was there to consecrate the Soldiers' National Cemetery, now known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where the soldiers killed in Gettysburg would be buried, and to commemorate the soldiers who had died there.
Lincoln had not initially been meant to give the actual address, that job had fallen to Edward Everett, an accomplished pastor and orator, who had served as the US Secretary of State and as the Governor of Massachusetts. The president was merely asked to say a few words to dedicate the site. Everett, being the main act, first gave a two-hour-long speech, which is not well-remembered today, but which was received well by the people there, as long speeches were common at the dedication of cemeteries.
Lincoln spoke next, and his oration was only two minutes long. During these two short minutes, Lincoln restated some of the founding values of the United States set down in the Declaration of Independence and other foundational documents, including the idea that all people are created equal. He honored the soldiers who had died on the Gettysburg battlefield, and stated that Americans must continue the unfinished work that the soldiers died for.
Maybe the most famous phrase of the speech calls the United States a government 'of the people, for the people, and by the people.' This passage has since been quoted in the French Constitution, and in several other places. Lincoln wrapped up his speech by saying that it is the job of all Americans to survive the test of the Civil War and to ensure that a country which is so dedicated to liberty should not succumb because of this conflict.
Lincoln, who was actually suffering the first shocks of a bout of smallpox, soon left the scene and took a train back to Washington D.C.
The Gettysburg Address has been called as one of the finest pieces of oration in history, as it was brief and well-crafted. Experts who have studied the speech say its wording has roots in classical literature, as well as the King James Bible. At first, the speech was regarded with mixed results, generally along party lines, with some anti-Lincoln newspapers saying it was poorly done.
However, his two-minute oration has stood the test of time, whereas Everett's two-hour sermon has not. It showed Lincoln's dedication to his country, and his firm understanding of its ideals. He would go on to steer the nation through the final years of the Civil War, before his life was ended prematurely by an assassin's bullet.