One hundred and fifty years ago this week (“seven score and ten”) President Abraham Lincoln honored a request to “say a few words” to the assembled crowd at a ceremony honoring both Confederate and Union soldiers who had fallen in a three-day Civil War battle fought near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln was not the featured speaker; that honor went to Edward Everett, a noted orator who delivered a two-hour speech recounting this conflict and the events leading up to it. Long speeches like Everett’s were the norm back then, and his talk was well received.
At 272 words Lincoln’s speech was much shorter — so short in fact that Lincoln delivered it in his high-pitched voice and sat down before the official photographer could take his picture. Lincoln received polite applause and everyone went home. No one realized this short address would change America forever.
But change it it did, as historian Garry Wills notes in his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg. Wills writes that when Lincoln said our nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he was reminding the country that the higher purpose to which our nation must strive was not written in the Constitution. Yes, as Lincoln had acknowledged many times previously, the Constitution permitted slavery, but the Constitution was merely an instruction manual on how to share power and responsibility, and it was the product of compromise and deal making to boot.
Rather, Lincoln suggested in this address that our higher purpose — our nation’s creed — is found in the Declaration of Independence, which says that liberty and equality are the intellectual pillars on which America rests. Subtly, brilliantly, Lincoln was issuing a wake-up call to a nation that had all but forgotten the Declaration in its obsessive hairsplitting over what the Constitution did or did not allow, including whether or not it allowed a state to secede from the Union.
Although public reaction to Lincoln’s speech was mixed, long-term its message became part of our national consciousness. As Wills says, Lincoln “picked our pocket” intellectually. After the Gettysburg Address and its call for a “new birth of freedom” we began to think differently about what it meant to be an American. In 272 words, Lincoln gave us a purpose much more noble than the one we had before.
We all know that Lincoln, through his leadership of the North, saved the Union. I would add that through this short speech he made the Union more worthy of saving. In my opinion, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered two years later, is his greatest speech, but the Gettysburg Address is his — and our nation’s — most important speech.