Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is the most famous speech in American history. It is a speech that virtually all Americans have heard of, and that more than a few of us know by heart.
And yet on this, its 150th anniversary, how well do we really know it?
Well, let’s see: We know that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while traveling to the battlefield by train. (Some accounts have him finishing the draft at the Wills House, where he stayed after his arrival.) We know that the audience received the speech coolly—either because they thought it inadequate to the occasion, or because they didn’t understand it. And we know that the real significance of the speech was not appreciated until much later.
Or do we?
Garry Wills, in his excellent book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, made a brave attempt to dispel the myths that have grown up around this crown jewel of American rhetoric.
First, the back of the envelope myth. Given the care that Lincoln devoted to his speeches, it is unlikely that he would have left a major address like this to the last minute. Indeed, reliable witnesses attest that Lincoln had finished the speech several days before leaving for Gettysburg.
Second, the cool reception. John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary (and future secretary of state), recorded in his diary that Lincoln was interrupted by applause no fewer than five times—hardly an unenthusiastic reception for speech that took no more than three minutes to deliver. Moreover, there was long and sustained applause when Lincoln finished.
And third, the myth that people at the time failed to grasp the real import of the speech. What was that import? It was nothing less than a second founding of America; a cleansing of the Constitution of the stain of slavery.
The words of the Gettysburg Address are so familiar to us today that it is hard to appreciate how radical they were at the time. Our country was neither “conceived in liberty” nor dedicated to “the proposition that all men are created equal.” A third or more of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had been slave owners.
Nor was the Civil War being fought over the issue of human equality—at least not at first. Lincoln himself had hedged on this point. At the outset of the hostilities, he insisted that his chief aim was to preserve the union. As late as August of 1862, he wrote to Horace Greeley: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” He did not sign the Emancipation Proclamation until the beginning of 1863. It was only then that the Civil War became a war to end slavery; and that idea was not universally popular, even in the North.
The Chicago Times, in particular, took Lincoln to task for re-writing the Constitution: “It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”
Yet, as we all know, it was Lincoln’s view that prevailed. As Garry Wills points out, Lincoln at Gettysburg was out to win the Civil War in ideological as well as military terms. And he succeeded. “The Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean. Words had to complete the work of guns.”
And they did. Thanks to Lincoln, the nation did experience a “new birth of freedom.” More than that, we finally became one nation in spirit and in fact. Before the Civil War, the United States was a plural noun—“the United States are.” After the Gettysburg Address, the plural became singular—“the United States is.”
Lincoln’s ten sentences, spoken 150 years ago this Tuesday, are still perhaps the most potent ever uttered.