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 brief and 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 -- that "all men are created equal," and to our Constitutional Republic -- "a government of the people":
“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.”