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“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’”
On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered these words in the Gettysburg Address, a two-minute-long speech that became one of the most famous in American history.
Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of a bloody Civil War battle the summer before.
That speech still resonates with people 150 years later — but why? Boston University history professor Nina Silber joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the answer.
On the context of the dedication ceremony and address
“The Battle of Gettysburg had happened in July of 1863 — the deadliest battle ever to happen in North America — about 10,000 dead, 21,000 wounded, I think another 20,000 missing. So the casualties are enormous. And there was a movement to bury the dead, to construct, as you mentioned, this national cemetery. And I should say, strictly to honor the Union dead as a national cemetery. It wasn’t meant to honor the Confederate dead.”
On the perception the address was uniting both sides
“Starting in the 1880s, when people thought about the Gettysburg Address, they put it in the context of reconciliation. They saw it as a document for all Americans. In the 1880s, people were thinking, you know, this is a time now to put our differences behind us and reconsider the two sections. But I would say in the moment, in 1863, when the nation was completely divided, Lincoln was there to honor the Union dead, those who were supporting the principles and the values of the United States, which is why he makes reference in the very beginning of the Gettysburg Address back to the Declaration of Independence.”
On the references to slavery, without using the word
“Democratic newspapers at the time said, ‘Oh Lincoln, he’s being so partisan again. Oh, there’s Lincoln just kind of ranting on.’ And some made reference to the idea that, ‘Oh, here was Lincoln just making a speech about the negro.’ So even though, you’re right, there’s no mention of slavery in there, there’s no mention of African Americans, I think that was on people’s minds — that this, in some way, was a reflection on the Union now that there was emancipation.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. They are 272 of the most famous words in American history. They were spoken on this day 150 years ago. They are President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Four score and seven years ago...
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: ...our fathers brought forth on this continent...
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: ...a new nation, conceived in Liberty...
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: ...and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
YOUNG: A montage of presidents including Obama and former Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton, filmed by Ken Burns for his project "Learn the Address," something students at the Greenwood School in Vermont have been doing for years in order to graduate. The school is for boys with learning differences. Every year they memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address. This year Ken Burns judged the competition, and Ethan Pond of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, won.
ETHAN POND: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation...
YOUNG: And you might remember when Julian, the son of our colleague Steph Katsones(ph) memorized the Gettysburg Address when challenged by his dad.
JULIAN: We are now engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
YOUNG: Why do these words compel us so? Well, Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University, also director of the American and New England Studies Program at BU. She joins us in the studio. Professor Silber, why is that? I still get a tingle hearing these people speak parts of the Gettysburg Address.
NINA SILBER: Well, I think it's come down to us in memory as a kind of sacred text for American history. It has associations with Lincoln, and Lincoln obviously is a critical president for us. Many people would call him the greatest president we had. And of course it's connections to the Civil War are so important for us to think about.
YOUNG: Remind us of those. These were the words that President Lincoln spoke at the dedication ceremonies for the National Cemetery at the Gettysburg Civil War Battlefield 150 years ago. Put that in context. What was happening in that moment?
SILBER: The Battle of Gettysburg had happened in July of 1863, the deadliest battle ever to happen in North America, so...
YOUNG: How many died?
SILBER: About 10,000 dead, 21,000 wounded, I think another 20,000 missing. So the casualties are enormous. And there was a movement to bury the dead, to construct, as you mentioned, this national cemetery and I should say strictly to honor the Union dead as a national cemetery. It wasn't meant to honor the Confederate dead.
YOUNG: Well, tell us about that because people think of the Gettysburg Address as something that was pulling Americans together. But as you said, it's only honoring one side in that conflict. President Lincoln was observing the nation, and at that point the South had seceded. They weren't a part of the nation. But some have interpreted this as uniting both sides in some sort of subtext. You say what?
SILBER: Well, I think that that's true, and I would say starting in the 1880s, when people thought about the Gettysburg Address, they put it in the context of reconciliation. They saw it as a document for all Americans. In the 1880s, people were thinking, you know, this is a time now to put our differences behind us and reconcile the two sections.
But I would say in the moment, in 1863, when the nation was completely divided, Lincoln was there to honor the Union dead, those who were supporting the principles and the values of the United States, which is why he makes reference in the very beginning of the Gettysburg Address back to the Declaration of Independence.
YOUNG: He says: ...that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. In other words, it was the cause of the Union side.
SILBER: Right, it was the cause of the Union side, and I would think I would also add to that, you know, since you asked about the context, July 1863 is when the Battle of Gettysburg happened. January 1863 is when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. So I think that also has to be incorporated into our understanding of the Gettysburg Address.
In other words, it's not simply a statement about going on with the old Union. It's actually a statement about moving forward with the new Union. And what I mean by that is the Union that will be free of slavery. So I think Lincoln is very conscious of that. I think when he makes reference back to the Declaration of Independence in the opening of the Gettysburg Address, he's talking about the proposition that all men are created equal.
YOUNG: Yeah, and...
SILBER: People heard that as a reference to slavery.
YOUNG: And you mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation. That was freeing the slaves in the states that had seceded, in the South, so that they could fight for the Union cause. It wasn't freeing all slaves.
SILBER: Right, it did not free slaves in the border states. It did not free slaves in some occupied portions of the Confederacy. And. yes, it was freeing slaves so that they could fight for the Union cause. It was also a way of saying that the Union Army hence forward was a kind of army of liberation, that that was their mission, was to see that slavery was ended in the South.
YOUNG: Well, it's funny, you draw our attention to these words, and in looking at it, he never does use the word unite. So he's not talking about uniting the two sides. He's definitely talking about going forward with a new birth of freedom, a new birth of the country.
SILBER: Exactly, right.
YOUNG: He doesn't mention slaves.
SILBER: Right, he doesn't explicitly mention slaves, but I think for listeners in 1863 - in fact, I know from what I've read that there were some Democratic newspapers, you know, Lincoln obviously was a Republican, Democratic newspapers at the time said, oh, Lincoln, he's being so partisan again. Oh, there's Lincoln, you know, just kind of ranting on.
And some made reference to the idea that oh, here was Lincoln just making a speech about the negro. So even though, you're right, there's no mention of slavery in there, there's no mention of African-Americans, I think that was on people's minds that this, in some way, was a reflection on the Union now that there was emancipation.
YOUNG: Yeah, well, that there would be a new birth of freedom, he said, freedom being the key word. You remind us that this - it's so short, and it followed a very long speech at Gettysburg that day.
SILBER: It is short, exactly. Yeah, Edward Everett gave a, I don't know, two-hour-plus speech. He was actually considered the top billing for this event, Edward Everett, and this two-hour speech.
YOUNG: And then along comes President Lincoln.
SILBER: Two minutes.
YOUNG: And kicks it.
SILBER: Although some people might have said kicks it. Some people might have said oh, that's it? You know, there was some sense that rhetorically it was beautiful, that the prose was wonderful. It didn't attract that much attention at the time.
YOUNG: But now it's considered one of the greatest American speeches ever, even though he says: ...the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here. Do you agree?
SILBER: You know, in its brevity it's wonderful. In the imagery that it calls up it's wonderful. And I think the other thing that's incredible about what Lincoln does is he recognizes the religious sensibilities of the people at the time. There is the phrase in there under God, but he - well, he's obviously trying to make meaning out of this massive amount of death, and I think he's doing it by saying there is this higher cause that they have given their life to.
It's not simply a religious cause; it's a secular cause, for our country, for the Union and for this new Union with emancipation.
YOUNG: It is the: ...government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.
YOUNG: Nina Silber, professor of history at Boston University, thanks so much.
SILBER: Thank you.
YOUNG: And because it's exquisite, here's a portion of Aaron Copeland's "Lincoln Portrait" with Henry Fonda reading Lincoln's words with the London Symphony Orchestra.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LINCOLN'S PORTRAIT")
HENRY FONDA: He said: ...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 the 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, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.