Speeches for the ages

150 years after Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln’s famous words remain an inspiration

This is a milestone year for two of the greatest American speeches. In August we marked 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and told us about his dream for America, and it has been 150 years today since the man who was sitting silently over Dr. King's shoulder delivered his own address on the Gettysburg battlefield. Each was remarkable in its own way.

Based on what we now know, the most moving portion of Dr. King’s long speech was completely off his written text and was prompted by singer Marian Anderson’s whispered encouragement to “tell them about your dream.” What came next was the miracle of words that catapulted the civil rights movement to the forefront of public attention and contributed significantly to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One hundred years earlier, President Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery was remarkable, too, but as nearly the antithesis of Dr. King’s.

By all accounts, Lincoln was an effective speaker, though not one who would have gotten a Southern Baptist congregation on its feet like Dr. King. And unlike King’s booming baritone, Lincoln’s twangy, rather high-pitched voice must have seemed odd coming from a figure almost a foot taller than most Americans of the day. Also unlike King, who was comfortable delivering unscripted sermons, Lincoln rarely spoke more than a few public words extemporaneously, nearly always deferring those requests until he’d precisely written down what he wanted to say. That brings us to Gettysburg.

President Lincoln was invited to Gettysburg about two weeks before the dedication but was told they already had their keynote speaker in the person of Edward Everett. Everett was the former president of Harvard College and had held every political office there was in Massachusetts. He was also the most renowned orator of his day, as Daniel Webster had been a generation earlier. So Lincoln’s only assignment was to add his presidential presence to the ceremony and to offer “a few appropriate remarks.” Actually, some of the organizers were nervous about having him say anything at all, fearing that his home-spun, frontier style might detract from the solemn dignity of the occasion.

Contrary to the mythology, Lincoln didn’t dash off his memorable 271 words on the back of an envelope while bumping along on the train to Gettysburg. That would not have been his style, for although little was expected of his remarks, he was anxious to make them convey how he felt about what had happened there, about the sacrifices the soldiers he commanded had made, and about what those sacrifices meant in the midst of the country’s bitter struggle for survival.

The president began work on his speech at the White House a few days before leaving Washington, once he’d cleared his schedule enough to make the trip, and there he composed those famous first words that set the tone for all that followed. Even if most Americans know nothing more about what he said, they can probably start with “Four score and seven years ago” and come pretty close to finishing that sentence.

Lincoln did travel to Gettysburg by train, but he spent that time talking war and politics — and kissing babies held up to him whenever the train stopped along the way. There's no evidence at all that he made any attempt to flesh out his speech during the trip. When he arrived in Gettysburg on the afternoon before the ceremony, he was put up at the home of local attorney David Wills, the young event organizer. It was during some time alone late that evening, amid all the boisterous celebrations going on outside, and then early the next morning, after an emotional tour of the still-ravaged battlefield, that the final address came together. Every word was chosen to convey the precise tone and meaning he was hoping for — we know that because the papers he read from contain a number of last-minute edits.

By the time Lincoln finally stood to speak, Everett had gone on for almost two hours, with a full account of the battle and with dozens of obscure classical and historical references. Many in the audience of 10,000 may have been settling in for more of the same. No one was prepared for what they heard — and then in about two minutes it was over. Most accounts say Lincoln spoke slowly, but in a clear ringing voice to make himself heard as far back in the gathering as possible. Some said that he seemed to struggle to check his emotions as he spoke. Many of the wounded who had returned, and the families of those who had died in that very place, were unable to hold back tears. The line that seemed to resonate most forcefully was, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” The president underlined that word himself, to make sure he gave it the proper emphasis.

Despite the reverence we now feel about what President Lincoln said, some early newspaper accounts called the speech an “insult to the memory of the dead.” In fact, when he sat down, the president himself thought he had failed. “That speech won’t scour,” like a bad plow, was how he put it. Ironically, it was Everett who immediately realized what he had heard, saying in his letter to Lincoln the next day, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Eventually, nearly all those who were there realized they had witnessed something timeless. Many of those 10,000 passed down to their children and grandchildren the stories of their experiences that day. There’s a 1938 radio interview with an elderly man who was still telling how 75 years before, as a young boy, he had slithered up to the front and stood just below Lincoln. When President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, a woman stood in that huge gathering wearing the same cloak her ancestor had worn that day in 1863.

President Lincoln had freed the Southern slaves earlier that year, though Dr. King would remind us a hundred years later that “the proposition that all men are created equal” was not yet a reality. The Union was eventually saved, but not without another year and a half of desperate fighting and many more graves filled and dedicated. The long battle for civil rights has been a bloody one, as well. Lincoln himself became a casualty, assassinated just five days after the surrender at Appomattox by a racist fanatic not unlike the one who ended Dr. King’s life in 1968. Their words were so powerful that their enemies resorted to murder to silence them.

In honor of the occasion, read those remarkable 271 words again — 202 of them with just one syllable.

L. Phillips Runyon III is the presiding justice of the Jaffrey-Peterborough District Court in Jaffrey and the town moderator for Peterborough.


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 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.

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