One of the best-known speeches in American history, it was delivered by Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, on the afternoon of November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
It was a carefully crafted address: In just over two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality from the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union sundered by the secession crisis, with “a new birth of freedom,” that would bring true equality to all of its citizens, ensuring that democracy would remain a viable form of government.
Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Would the promise of “all men are created equal” be realized? It was not clear in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was first elected. It was not clear in 1865, just after Lincoln’s re-election as the Civil War was finally coming to a close after four long years and 600,000 dead.
Lincoln worried the Emancipation Proclamation would not be enough to guarantee an end to slavery. An amendment to the Constitution would be the only way slavery could be abolished forever from American soil, he said. So began the struggle for votes in the House of Representatives to pass such an amendment in January 1865, just after Lincoln was re-elected.
This intense political period is the setting for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “A Team of Rivals.”
Ever since Lincoln wrote the speech, the “Bliss copy” has been the most often reproduced, notably on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Today it is on display at the Lincoln Room of the White House:
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.
November 19, 1863
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings: Listen to David Kurlan read the speech from “Heritage USA, Vol. 2, Part 2: Documents and Speeches” and remember those lost in the Civil War.
Barbara Russum, Teresa Albano and Wikipedia contributed to this article.
Photo: The only known photograph of President Lincoln giving his Gettysburg speech, taken by photographer David Bachrach. Lincoln is seated on the right at the end of the dais, facing the crowd. Wikimedia Commons: This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.