Gettysburg Address

The "Gettysburg Address" is a famous speech given by Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) on November 19, 1863. Lincoln had achieved national fame for his oratory skills and given many speeches prior that are studied by students and teachers alike. Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" stands in particular as the most well-known of his speeches and is considered one of, if not the most famous speech in American history.

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    At the time of the speech, Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president presiding over a divided Union. His election triggered the secession of many southern states. They formed the Confederacy and thus began the American Civil War—the most costly of American lives in any war, past or present.

    Much was at stake, and it was Lincoln's top priority to preserve the Union. His speech at Gettysburg marked a turning point in the war in favor of the Union. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had a string of victories and was steadily advancing into Union territory. It was at the Battle of Gettysburg that Union General George Meade, appointed by then-President Lincoln himself, over the course of three days, beat back the Confederate troops from invading the Northern states.

    Context and Facts of the Gettysburg Address

    • Abraham Lincoln was the author of the speech known as the "Gettysburg Address".

    • The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1–3, 1863, and its aftermath led to the creation of the first National Soldier's cemetery.

    • As President, Abraham Lincoln gave the "Gettysburg Address" on November 19, 1863, several months after the Battle of Gettysburg at the dedication of the cemetery.

    • Edward Everett was the main speaker and gave a two hour speech before Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address".

    • There are five accepted versions of the "Gettysburg Address"; the "Bliss Copy" is the most cited and is 271 words long.

    The Gettysburg Address: Written by Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham Lincoln's childhood education laid the foundation for his impressive oratory skills as an adult. As a self-educated lawyer and local statesman, he would hone his abilities as a public speaker in local and state politics. He crafted his own speeches, often sharing first drafts with close friends, and once he became President, with trusted cabinet members of his administration.

    Gettysburg address portrait photo lincoln's gettysburg address StudySmarterThe most iconic photograph of Abraham Lincon taken on November 8, 1863, just over a week before giving the "Gettysburg Address". Photograph by Alexander Gardner. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin out in the countryside. In his youth, Lincoln taught himself to read and write in his free time while doing chores on the family farm. Some of his first books were the Bible (1 AD), Robinson Crusoe (1719), and memoirs by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Occasionally he had the opportunity to attend classes with traveling teachers but formal lessons were infrequent, and he largely educated himself.

    As a young adult, he would witness slavery while working a flatboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The lack of exposure to slavery while growing up on the frontier would influence his public stance on restricting the expansion of slavery. However, his outspoken criticism of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which effectively allowed new territories to decide on slavery themselves, began the start of his public image as anti-slavery. These experiences would contribute to his emphasis on equality in the "Gettysburg Address".

    Lincoln had underestimated his influence and his election triggered the Civil War. The war itself and the lives lost personally affected Lincoln, as he felt responsible. He was well aware of the responsibility he had as President and believed in preserving the Union at all costs. While he was glad that his appointed General Meade and his troops had pushed Confederate General Lee into retreat, the cost of the war in lives weighed heavily on him. Meanwhile, there were protests against the draft, which created a full-blown insurrection in New York City in 1863. Lincoln presided over a frayed, fractured, and weary public that looked to him to lead the country on the long road to peace. He understood there was a limit to fighting morale, and he hoped to reinvigorate public support for the war.

    The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the war. Union forces halted the invasion of the Northern states from the Confederates of the Southern states. The "Gettysburg Address" was a speech President Lincoln crafted himself in hopes of offering proper recognition of the soldier's sacrifice and inspiring the living to carry on what the soldiers died for. It was imperative that he encourage the country to continue fighting the war as it was far from over, and would last another couple of years.

    At first, President Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" took little notice and attention from the press outside of Gettysburg. He wasn't even the main speaker and would spend just a few minutes after the featured two-hour speech given by Edward Everett. Gradually Lincoln's speech gained traction with the popular conscious after the text was printed in newspapers and magazines, along with critical responses and reactions from public intellectuals. Today it is highly revered as the founding documents that inspired it, such as the "Declaration of Independence" (1776) and the "Bill of Rights" (1791).

    Summary of the Gettysburg Address

    The Battle of Gettysburg would be the most costly in casualties of the Civil War and any war before. While a necessary victory for the Union that sent the Confederates retreating, the cost was staggering. A combined casualty estimate was between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans. The immediate burial process was overwhelming. Bodies were scattered all over the countryside and hastily buried, if at all. The logistical task of giving a proper burial to all the tens of thousands of fallen soldiers was monumental. Demand from the locals for the first national cemetery grew. Despite an initial ceremony, the construction of the cemetery wouldn't be complete until months later, when Abraham Lincoln gave his famous speech known as the "Gettysburg Address".1

    At the time, the dedication ceremony of the first-ever National Cemetery, now called the Gettysburg National Cemetery went as planned. After Edward Everrets well-received two-hour speech, Lincoln, appearing somewhat ill, took the stage.

    Lincoln opened the speech by referring to the date of the "Declaration of Independence". The colonies had come together to start a new nation, based on personal freedom and that all men are equal "Four score and seven years" ago, the often quoted first words meaning 87 years, directly tie Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" with the revered founding document.

    Lincoln then presents the Civil War as the ultimate test of these founding principles of the United States. He acknowledged the aftermath of a great battle and honored those who fought to preserve the Union. Yet Lincoln admits that the power to make this land a sacred place doesn't come from the living ceremony. It is the sacrifice of the soldiers that give the place its sanctity.

    Gettysburg address photo of gettysburg address speech StudySmarterPresent Abraham Lincoln's (highlighted via the red square) arrival, hours before giving the "Gettysburg Address". Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Rather, Lincoln believes, that it's the obligation of the living, to carry on the ideals and principles that the soldiers selflessly gave their lives for. He presses for a renewal of the fighting spirit to finish the war, preserve the enshrined founding principles, and prove that the American experiment can work out after all.

    His speech would be over in about two minutes, and he left the stage with little fanfare. Press at the event noted the President's haggard appearance. Later, President Lincoln would be bedridden for a few weeks and was diagnosed with smallpox, from which he would recover.

    Full text of Abraham Lincoln's Speech the Gettysburg Address

    The speech itself is quite short. At 271 words, Abraham Lincoln was able to deliver succinctly his views in ten sentences on the significance of the Civil War, and commemorate the soldiers who fought and died to preserve the Union.

    Gettysburg address original bliss copy gettysburg address speech StudySmarterPresident Abraham Lincoln's fifth draft of the "Gettysburg Address" was written at the request of Colonel Alexander Bliss. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    The original text is disputed by historians. There are at least five versions, but only one is used as the standard. All the versions differ slightly and in minor ways. The standard accepted text is the Bliss copy, after Colonel Alexander Bliss, titled, signed, and dated by Lincoln by request. This is also the text inscribed on the side of the Lincoln Memorial.2

    Below is the "Gettysburg Address" speech text in full.

    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."1

    Analysis of the Gettysburg Address

    The wording and structure of Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" are deliberate and intentional. Scholars note and compare it to previous famous speeches in history. Lincoln was an avid reader and writer, writing poetry and many eloquent letters. Since he was well versed in literature, he likely drew inspiration from great writers and orators before him.

    Lincoln intentionally sought to create speeches that echoed past great orators, but at the same time made them accessible and understood by the general public. At the time, he was admired for the simplicity and directness of his many speeches along with his consistently passionate and sincere delivery. In terms of writing, the "Gettysburg Address" would be no exception. Even novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe praised his work for his "literary abilities."1 Those who did praise his work in the press, concluded that one could not help but feel a "kindling of emotion" from his words.2

    Lincoln opened the "Gettysburg Address" with a reference to the Declaration of Independence. Now that the war had been progressing for years, the meaning and significance of the Civil War were beginning to change. Before the war, Lincoln insisted he would not abolish slavery, just limit its spread to new territories, and emphasized the preservation of the Union. Now he drew attention to equality, along with the necessity of preserving the Union. It was no coincidence that earlier that year, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, essentially freeing every slave and encouraging their escape behind Union lines to join the cause.

    By ending the speech this way he not only recalls the nation's founding principles but reframes the Civil War about achieving equality. This emphasis on equality after abolishing slavery signals to the audience that the Union fights for freedom and equality, and that rebels of the Confederate south are in opposition to this. By combining the two ideals, union and equality, in one statement, he also renews the push to encourage the prevailing fight for the Union.

    The "Gettysburg Address" is so powerful because it eloquently references ideals enshrined in American founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Further, it honors the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers who fought for these ideals, reframed the Civil War beyond preserving the Union and emphasized equality towards the newly freed slaves.

    "Gettysburg Address" - Key takeaways

    • President Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" is considered the most famous speech in American History
    • Abraham Lincoln was largely self-educated and crafted the speech himself
    • Lincoln connected the "Gettysburg Address" to founding principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence
    • Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" reframed the Civil War beyond preserving the Union, including equality for the recently freed slaves as worth fighting for as well.
    1. Boritt, G.S. The Gettysburg Gospel (2006)

    2. Oates, Stephen B. Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (1994)

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Gettysburg Address

    What was the "Gettysburg Address"?

    The "Gettysburg Address" is the most famous speech given by President Abraham Lincoln in 1963. Lincoln gave the speech several months after the Battle of Gettysburg at the dedication of the first National Soldier's cemetery.

    What was the purpose of the "Gettysburg Address"?

    The purpose of the "Gettysburg Address" was to honor the fallen soldiers and the sacrifice they made fighting to preserve the Union, to remind the people of the ideals they are fighting for, to reframe the Civil War as a fight not just for liberty, but for equality as well, and ultimately to boost morale to continue fighting the war.

    "What are the words of the "Gettysburg Address? 

    The words of the "Gettysburg Address" are as follows:


    "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."

    What are 3 facts about the "Gettysburg Address"? 

    Three facts about the "Gettysburg Address":

    • As President, Abraham Lincoln gave the "Gettysburg Address" on November 19, 1863, several months after the Battle of Gettysburg at the dedication of the cemetery.

    • Edward Everett was the main speaker and gave a two hour speech before Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address".

    • There are five accepted versions of the "Gettysburg Address"; the "Bliss Copy" is the most cited and is 271 words long.

    What makes the "Gettysburg Address" so powerful? 

    The "Gettysburg Address" is so powerful because it eloquently references ideals enshrined in American founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, it honors the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers who fought for these ideals, and reframed the Civil War beyond preserving the Union but also emphasizing equality towards the newly freed slaves.

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