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10 Facts: Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address

Published: 11/19/2013
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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 …

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln giving his historic Gettysburg Address. Delivered at the site of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, the short speech became a touchstone in American history, marking not only a turning point in the Civil War but also a reframing of that war as a struggle for human rights. More than tariffs, taxes, states' rights or any of the numerous other political differences dividing North and South, the issue of slavery has come to dominate how history remembers the conflict — thanks in large part to Lincoln's speech. He successfully redefined the war as a fight to uphold the principles upon which the nation was founded, at the same time delivering one of the most beloved and best-remembered speeches in history. In honor of its 150th, we bring you ten facts about the Gettysburg Address and Abraham Lincoln.

1. Lincoln wrote every word of the Gettysburg Address.

While subsequent presidents have all enjoyed significant assistance from speechwriters in crafting their messages, President Lincoln took a more hands-on approach and is one of the few presidents in U.S. history to have written the entirety of his speeches and remarks.

2. Lincoln was not the main attraction at Gettysburg that day.

President Lincoln was invited to make a few remarks at the ceremony consecrating a new cemetery for Union soldiers, but he was not the keynote speaker. That honor went to Edward Everett, a leading academic and popular orator at the time. Everett spoke before the president, delivering a 13,607-word, 2-hour-long speech.

3. Lincoln’s speech was just 10 sentences long.

In contrast to Everett’s hours-long address, Lincoln spoke for just a few minutes. A popular myth tells of President Lincoln hastily jotting down his 270-word speech on the back of an envelope during the train ride from Washington to Gettysburg. In truth, Lincoln put a great deal of planning into his remarks. He began writing the speech the night before he left and completed it after his arrival in Pennsylvania.

4. The exact wording of Lincoln's remarks, as delivered, cannot be historically verified.

Modern speeches are often distributed electronically to news outlets as they are delivered—if not before. In 1863, journalists had to transcribe the text as it was spoken, leading to conflicting reports as to what President Lincoln said and how he said it. Adding to the confusion, Lincoln himself penned five different versions of the text for his personal secretaries and friends.

5. The Gettysburg Address does not explicitly discuss the war.

One reason for enduring power of Gettysburg Address is its timeless appeal. Rather than linking the speech to details of the war, Lincoln instead invokes universal ideals like devotion, democracy, human equality, and the importance of honoring the sacrifice of those who died for their country. He does not once explicitly mention the Union, the Confederacy, slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, or even Gettysburg itself.

6. The speech was not the first appearance of the phrase "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

While Lincoln is often credited with creating the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people," it is actually centuries older than America. The earliest usage can be found in the introduction to an English translation of the Bible by John Wycliffe in 1384 ("This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.") The phrase also turns up in the 1850s in a book of sermons by abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, a book which Lincoln received as a gift in the first months of the Civil War.

7. The Gettysburg Address argues that the Declaration of Independence is more important than the Constitution.

In the speech, Lincoln focuses on the ideal set forth "four score and seven years ago" in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Whereas slaveholders at the time argued that they had a constitutional right to own slaves, Lincoln called on America to welcome a "new birth of freedom," implying that the U.S. Constitution must change to embrace equal rights for all.

8. The response from those in attendance was overwhelmingly positive.

According to reports, the audience interrupted Lincoln five times to applaud his speech (though they offered only mildly polite applause at the conclusion of his remarks). Even with those five interruptions, Lincoln still managed to deliver his entire address in approximately 2-3 minutes.

9. The press response to Lincoln's speech was divided along partisan lines.

While the speech is hailed today as one of the greatest in history, contemporary responses were split with pro- and anti-Lincoln publications divided along party lines. The Democratic-leaning Chicago Tribune, for instance, called the speech "dishwatery."

10. There is only one known photograph of President Lincoln at the ceremony.

Lincoln at Gettysburg (Wikimedia Commons / David Bachrach)Lincoln was captured in a photo of the crowd at the ceremony, with his head visible in the mass of people. Historians speculate that the brevity of Lincoln's remarks prevented photographers from setting up their complicated equipment in time to catch the president while still on stage. The photograph was taken by 18-year-old David Bachrach, who would later be notable as the uncle of writer Gertrude Stein.

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 battlefield 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 this 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.

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