Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Gettysburg Address: 150 Years On

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a brief (269-word) speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln, dedicating the burial ground of those killed during the brutal Battle of Gettysburg. Dismissed by many commentators at the time, it is now seen as one of the finest speeches in the English language.

"Lincoln (was) here not only to sweeten the air of Gettysburg but to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution, altering the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise, bringing it to its own indictment . . .(The audience) walked off from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionised the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.

 . . . The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit --- as authoritative as the Declaration of Independence itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it."

                                                                  Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg

From Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War (1990):

The text of the Gettysburg address:

"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."

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863

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