Abraham Lincoln was an afterthought, not even the main attraction at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg 149 years ago today. Edward Everett was the one everyone had come to listen to. He was one of most famous orators of his day and spoke for 2 hours (13,607 words). Lincoln followed him and spoke only 272 words (some claim 269 depending on slightly different extant versions of the speech) which lasted only two minutes. Lincoln thought his speech was a failure. Everett, however, commended the President—
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.
In the ten sentences of the Gettyburg Address, Abraham Lincoln reframed the Civil War both ideologically and morally and read the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution itself, setting the United States on a course toward inclusive citizenship and broader equity, “a new birth of freedom”— 272 words which gave our understanding of the Civil War an inspired visionary meaning beyond union. These words still speak to our core as Americans.
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.