Monday, November 19, 2012

The Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln was the second speaker at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A throng of fifteen to twenty thousand people crowded around the speakers' platform. Lincoln was preceded on the podium by the famed orator Edward Everett, who spoke to the crowd for two hours. Lincoln followed with his now immortal Gettysburg Address. The following day, on November 20, Everett wrote to Lincoln: “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. 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.”

On the morning of November 19, President Lincoln rode in a train with his secretary, John G. Nicolay, his assistant secretary, John Hay, and three members of his Cabinet who accompanied him, William Seward, John Usher and Montgomery Blair, among others. Hay noted that during the speech Lincoln’s face was “sad, mournful, almost haggard.” After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30pm train for Washington, D.C., he was feverish and weak, with a severe headache. A protracted illness followed and he was diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox.

The extreme brevity of Lincoln's address caught his audience by surprise. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reported, one eyewitness said, “The assemblage stood motionless and silent.” Pennsylvania Governor Curtin stated, “He pronounced that speech in a voice that all the multitude heard. The crowd was hushed into silence because the President stood before them...It was so Impressive! It was the common remark of everybody. Such a speech, as they said it was!” Contemporary reactions in the press (while not all so positive) included these: 

Springfield (Mass.) Republican: “Surprisingly fine as Mr. Everett’s oration was in the Gettysburg consecration, the rhetorical honors of the occasion were won by President Lincoln. His little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma. Then it has the merit of unexpectedness in its verbal perfection and beauty… Turn back and read it over, it will repay study as a model speech.” 

Providence Journal: "We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made at the close of Mr. Everett’s oration… Could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those thrilling words of the President? They have in our humble judgment the charm and power of the very highest eloquence." 

Chicago Tribune: “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.”

Recited by schoolchildren and beloved by generations of Americans, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address stands as a timeless tribute to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and to our Constitutional Republic:

“Fourscore 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.”


Sunday, November 11, 2012

History of Veterans Day

“World War I – known at the time as “The Great War” - officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month [or November 11, 1918]...

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"  The original concept for the celebration was for a day observed with parades and public meetings and a brief suspension of business beginning at 11:00 a.m. …

An Act by the United States Congress approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as "Armistice Day." Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but in 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history; after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word "Armistice" and inserting in its place the word "Veterans." With the approval of this legislation on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars…

Later that same year, on October 8th, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first "Veterans Day Proclamation" which stated: "In order to insure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans' organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose. Toward this end, I am designating the Administrator of Veterans' Affairs as Chairman of a Veterans Day National Committee, which shall include such other persons as the Chairman may select, and which will coordinate at the national level necessary planning for the observance. I am also requesting the heads of all departments and agencies of the Executive branch of the Government to assist the National Committee in every way possible." ...

The first Veterans Day under the new law was observed with much confusion on October 25, 1971. It was quite apparent that the commemoration of this day was a matter of historic and patriotic significance to a great number of our citizens, and so on September 20th, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed Public Law 94-97, which returned the annual observance of Veterans Day to its original date of November 11, beginning in 1978. This action supported the desires of the overwhelming majority of state legislatures, all major veterans’ service organizations and the American people.

Veterans Day continues to be observed on November 11, regardless of what day of the week on which it falls. The restoration of the observance of Veterans Day to November 11 not only preserves the historical significance of the date, but helps focus attention on the important purpose of Veterans Day: A celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”