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 by 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.”
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.
The Blue and the Gray (1982) – Gettysburg Address
Clip is from a civil war mini-series starring Gregory Peck as Lincoln.
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.