TERRE HAUTE —
“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”
Those were the opening words of a two-hour oration by former U.S. Senator, Congressman and statesman, Edward Everett, delivered at Gettysburg, Pa., 150 years ago today. Everett’s two-hour speech was the main event on a day to honor those killed – estimated around 51,000 over three days – at one of the most important battles in American history that had taken place a few months earlier.
Everett’s speech, widely praised at the time, is now mostly referenced as a contrast with the much more famous and far shorter speech given that day by President Abraham Lincoln.
About 20,000 people were at the small town of Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, for the dedication of the national cemetery. It’s hard to say how many of them could hear Lincoln make his “Gettysburg Address.” No one even got a photograph of the president as he made the brief oration.
Charlie Gamm, a member of the Clark County, Ill., Historical Society and a Civil War re-enactor, was among the Civil War enthusiasts used in filming the 1993 movie, “Gettysburg.” While there, he made a special effort to visit the very spot from where Illinois' adopted son, the 16th president, delivered the address, he said.
Mike Wilson, also of Clark County, is another Civil War re-enactor and history buff.
“Lincoln being invited to Gettysburg was almost an afterthought,” Wilson said. But the Gettysburg address “is one of the most important speeches of all time. It redefined the purpose of the United States.”
At one time, not that long ago, all Illinois school kids were required to memorize Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg address. That’s no longer the case, but Adam Clawson, who teaches U.S. history at Mayo Middle School in Paris, still requires his students to recite the address from memory in class.
“It really defines that period of the Civil War,” he said.
The Gettysburg address was part of Lincoln’s effort to sell the idea of emancipation to a northern audience not particularly concerned about slavery, said Christopher Olsen, professor and chairman of the history department at Indiana State University. As he had done earlier in his career, Lincoln at Gettysburg skillfully presented the idea in abstract terms Americans favor, such as freedom and fairness, he said.
“And, of course, he did it all without mentioning slavery or emancipation or black people,” Olsen said.
Lincoln favored the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution as the nation’s main founding document, Olsen said. His opening words: “Four score and seven years ago” refers to 1776 – the year of the Declaration. Notably, he did not date the nation’s founding as 1788, the year of the ratification of the Constitution.
In his address, Lincoln quoted the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” Since the Civil War, we now take for granted the federal government’s role in ensuring equality, especially equality of opportunity, Olsen said. That theme has gradually expanded over the decades to encompass civil rights in general and, more recently, can be heard in the debate about marriage equality, he said.
Lincoln is an interesting person to study, in part, because it is not always clear what he was thinking or what were his true motives, Olsen said. The 16th president left no diaries. Rather, historians must know him from his public statements and actions. Heated debates continue today about Lincoln’s true motives for his Emancipation Proclamation, for example.
Still, there’s no doubt Lincoln and the Civil War reshaped America. The Gettysburg Address, coming at the turning point of the war, crystallizes and symbolizes that change.
“It was critical,” Olsen said of the address. “It got a lot of attention at the time. It certainly wasn’t guaranteed that, just because the president was coming to say a few words, that it would have a lasting impact.”
But that is has.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
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. 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.