The Gettysburg Address was one of the shortest and most influential speeches in American history. The speech was given by President Lincoln and it was a defining moment in history that changed the way that we see the role of the population. Let’s take a look at why the Gettysburg Address was so famous and what made it so instrumental to the growth of the United States. And if you love American History, make sure you check out our range of Washington DC tours – tour Arlington Cemetery and Mount Vernon or take our DC at Night tour!
Most school children know of the Gettysburg Address and have been taught to memorize it. This speech can often be recited by young children because it's so short. While young children might have it memorized, they’re not always aware of what it means.
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 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.
The Significance of the Gettysburg Address
Lincoln changed the way that speeches were made with this address and it was, arguably, the first modern speech as it displayed a catchier, more economic way of speaking. There are various theories about why this speech has proven so significant in the decades that followed, and the most common theory is that the first line, 'Four scor and seven years ago...' has such an iconic rhythm to it that the speech has just stuck itself fast in the history books ever since.
There is one myth that Lincoln was unprepared for the address and wrote it on the train on his way to the event. This has been disproved in recent years, as he was an exceptionally organized person. The rumor goes that he was writing the document on the back of an envelope, though it’s more likely that he edited the document on the go.
Lincoln had a secretary that traveled with him, so it’s more likely that he would have worked on the document with him. Gettysburg was packed on the day of the Address and even the President could not find a room to himself. The area was filled with soldiers’ families and those that wished to pay tribute to those that had fallen.
Comparing Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to Edward Everett's Speech
Prior to Lincoln’s speech, Edward Everett spoke for two hours on the dedication of the land. In hindsight, people have speculated that Lincoln’s speech was paltry compared to Everett, but it was really the latter that was expected to speak for longer. His speech was more than 14,000 words long and covered history, philosophy, and politics. After Lincoln’s speech, it was more common to speak in a shorter and more conversational way – rather than with the flowery language that would have been used in Everett’s speech.
After the Address, Lincoln was said to have been incredibly ill with smallpox. Scholars have noted the timeline would mean that the President would have been in the early stages of the sickness while giving the speech. Spectators noticed that the President was not in good health and his secretary stated later that he looked ill while giving the speech.
The dedication ceremony was held on the 19th of November, 1863 and changed many of the cultural norms surrounding such an occasion. The entire speech is carved into the Lincoln Memorial alongside the statue, which can be found in the National Mall of Washington DC. This two-minute speech had a much more lasting impression than the two-hour one given by Everett, but both were equally important on the day.
If you want to learn more about the Civil War and what effect it had on the people of Gettysburg, then join us on our Battle of Gettysburgh tour. This historic battlefield is an excellent place to learn about the significance of the war and the Address thereafter. And please get in touch if you have any questions!