Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, 150 Years Later

By Stephen Prothero | November 19, 2013

(Getty/Wilkinson Photography)

(Getty/Wilkinson Photography)

On November 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at the dedication of America’s first national cemetery, on the site of the battle that had turned the course of the Civil War decisively toward the Union, Edward Everett of Massachusetts delivered the keynote address. A former Harvard president and heir to Senator of Massachusetts Daniel Webster as the leading orator of the day, Everett offered an exhaustive account of this battle, comparing it to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, when the Greeks had defeated the Persians and saved democracy. In the presence of the living and the dead (many of the 50,000 or so slain soldiers had not yet been buried), Everett also advanced a detailed constitutional argument for the supremacy of the nation over the states. His “classic but frigid oration,” as New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley termed it, lasted over two hours. It has been almost entirely forgotten. Abraham Lincoln’s “dedicatory remarks” lasted three minutes. Today they are remembered as the “Gettysburg Address,” and the finest speech in American history.

Because the Gettysburg Address is now legendary, legends have grown up around its composition. Some say that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope, perhaps on the train on the way to Gettysburg. Others say he composed it on the fly as Everett was speaking. But he almost certainly prepared a draft in the capital before honing it in Gettysburg.

Most of the speech is dedicated to the men who died there—those who, in Lincoln’s memorable phrase, “gave the last full measure of devotion.” It is not up to the living, Lincoln says, to consecrate this battlefield. Soldiers’ blood has already made this place holy. But it is up to Lincoln and his listeners to ensure that these men did not die in vain. They “gave their lives that this nation might live,” Lincoln says. So it is up to the living to see to it that the United States experiences “a new birth of freedom.” 

These sentiments are pitch perfect, as might be expected from America’s most eloquent president. But the underlying message about wartime sacrifice is also the sort of thing a president is expected to say at an event such as this. What Lincoln said about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is an entirely different matter.

There is a recurring tension in American thought between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration is a revolutionary document, but it is also in many respects a radical one, affirming as “self-evident” a host of claims that upon its promulgation would almost certainly have been denied by most colonists. The Constitution is a far more conservative document, a measured product of negotiations among the thirteen states. In short, if the Declaration is an outburst on behalf of liberty and equality, the Constitution is a compromise by committee on behalf of order. Or so it went in the 1700s. 

At the heart of Lincoln’s “dedicatory remarks” at Gettysburg is a new interpretation of the Declaration and the Constitution, and of the relationship between them. The first hint of this reinterpretation comes at the start of the opening sentence, when Lincoln dates the birth of the new nation not to the ratification of the Constitution in 1787 but to the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. (1863 minus 86 is 1776.) But Lincoln does more than refigure America’s birthday. He distills its project down to one central idea. This bombshell comes in the second part of the first sentence, when Lincoln asserts that the United States, though “conceived in liberty,” is nonetheless dedicated to one and only one proposition: “that all men are created equal.”

In his last sentence, Lincoln offers another reason for the ultimate sacrifice of these men. They have died so that real republicanism might live—“that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Here Lincoln is borrowing from Daniel Webster and the Transcendentalist/Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, both of whom had defined democracy in similar terms. In so doing, Lincoln is locating U.S. sovereignty not in the states but in its people, reading the federal government as a covenant of people rather than a compact of states. In fact, it was to this end that Webster had presented his formulation of “the American idea” in a debate on states’ rights with Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina. “Is it the creature of the state legislatures or the creature of the people?” he asked. “It is, sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government; made for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people.”

What is Lincoln doing here? First, he is subordinating the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence, which had long stood at the center of his political thought. The Declaration was America’s Genesis, the founding book of the American Bible and the core expression of the aspirations of the American people. It was this text that constituted the nation. According to historian Garry Wills in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, “Lincoln distinguished between the Declaration as the statement of a permanent ideal and the Constitution as an early and provisional embodiment of that ideal, to be tested against it, kept in motion toward it.” Second, Lincoln is reading the “equality clause” of the Declaration—the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal”—as the heart and soul of this founding expression, and employing equality (a word never mentioned in the Constitution) as a prophetic principle by which the American experience is to be judged. Third, he is, by context and implication, reading African Americans into that clause. They, too, are human beings; they, too, are created equal. Finally, he is reimagining the United States not as a collection of states but as a people. “Up to the Civil War, ‘the United States’ was invariably a plural noun: ‘The United States are a free government,’” Wills explains. “After Gettysburg, it became a singular: ‘The United States is a free government.”

But this Gettysburg revolution did not simply put the American people over and above the states and the spirit of the Declaration before the letter of the Constitution. In practical terms, it elevated the Gettysburg Address above the Declaration. Here the same eyes Lincoln used to gaze over the battlefield became the eyes through which subsequent generations read the Declaration. “For most people now,” Wills concludes, “the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means. 

This new gospel of Gettysburg—a new version of the “good news” of the American story—had huge implications, of course, on the question that was above all other questions at the time, since the Constitution would seem, on any simple reading, to favor slavery, while the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration seem to protest most emphatically against it. But Lincoln did not take up this question at Gettysburg. Neither did he address God—a role relegated to the House chaplain, the Reverend Thomas Stockton, and the Reverend Henry Baugher, president of Gettysburg College. In fact, Lincoln’s working draft did not mention the Almighty. But he added the words under God under the impress of the moment, and then to subsequent copies he produced. Roughly a century later, in 1954, this last-minute insertion would become a winning argument for adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

After Lincoln finished speaking, he was met, first, with a hushed silence and then with “immense applause.” Not everyone in attendance was happy, however. The Chicago Times complained about the president’s “silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances,” while the Harrisburg Patriot and Union allowed itself to hope “that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over [Lincoln’s remarks] and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.” The Massachusetts-based Springfield Republican, however, got its first draft of history right: “His little speech is a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”

What this “perfect gem” did was define the Civil War to succeeding generations, and in the process to redefine America. Still, many took exception, both before and after his 1865 assassination, to Lincoln’s interpretations of the war and the nation. The Democratic Chicago Times called his address “a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.” Others insisted that the Constitution, not the Declaration, was the law of the land and the basis for the national compact. Many Northerners, chafing at any suggestion that the Civil War was fought to secure racial equality, insisted that the purpose of the war was to preserve the Union. Who said that blacks were heirs to the Declaration’s promises? 

This debate has never been settled, but the legend of the “Gettysburg Address” has swelled over time. The popular elementary school readers of the McGuffey brothers started to include it in the 1890s, and it was first cast in bronze in 1896. By the start of the twentieth century it had become American scripture—“the nation’s political Sermon on the Mount.” Over the last hundred years, Americans have invoked the Gettysburg Address to justify all sorts of causes—new wars, of course, but also Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s war on poverty, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the civil rights movement. In 2011, economist Joseph Stiglitz married Lincoln to the Occupy Wall Street movement with a Vanity Fair essay in runaway income inequality called “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.”

The “Gettysburg Address” has also been used to chasten America. In 1984 the South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu blasted the United States for abstaining from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning apartheid in South Africa: “I believed, naively perhaps, that the United States lived by the precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.” In 1985, the Soviet state newspaper Pravda, noting that the large corporations that had picked up much of the $12.5 million tab for President Reagan’s second inauguration would expect their generosity to be repaid, said the U.S. was becoming “a government of millionaires, for millionaires and by millionaires.”

As the civil rights movement moved from success to success in the 1960s, Lincoln’s views of the Constitution, the Declaration, the Civil War, and the origins and ends of American came to predominate. Or, to be more precise, an even more audacious interpretation of the Declaration’s equality clause triumphed, because Lincoln, who in his famous debate with Stephen Douglas stated plainly, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races,” never imagined the sort of racial integration that came with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

During the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s and beyond, conservative advocates of states rights and an “original intent” approach to Constitutional interpretation challenged the Gettysburg gospel, rejecting Lincoln’s elevation of equality to the guiding principle of American life. Echoing earlier critics, these conservatives now argue that the Declaration did nothing more than declare thirteen independent colonies independent from the British crown. It did not found a new nation; the Constitution did that. Moreover, the equality clause in the Declaration could not possibly have created a national commitment to realize equality for all. “All men” could not have meant “all men” to the founders, since the vote was kept from slaves, women, and the landless. Lincoln’s “second founding,” in short, lured the country away from first principles and toward untold dangers. Far from the pinnacle of American political thought, these critics argued, the Gettysburg Address is a nadir.

Despite these criticisms, the Gettysburg Address is now widely recognized as the greatest American speech, challenged only by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” which shares with it not only a vision but also soaring rhetoric and a historic moment appropriate to the task. In recent years, the most quoted phrase from the Gettysburg Address, perhaps because of its resonances with resurgent evangelicalism, is “a new birth of freedom.” Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, and Steve Forbes used this phrase in their Republican campaigns for president, and Ronald Reagan used it at least ten times during his presidency. In 2009, the theme of the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, was “A New Birth of Freedom.”


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 cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot 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.

This version is based on the so-called Bliss copy, made for Colonel Alexander Bliss, and now located in the Lincoln Room of the White House. This copy is the only version Lincoln signed.


The New York World, attacking Lincoln’s interpretation of U.S. history and the Civil War (1863) 

“Four score and seven years ago our Father [sic] brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

So spoke the President at Gettysburg. The passion for obstetrical analogies appears to have ascended from [Secretary of State] Seward to his chief. Questionable as may be the taste which represents the “fathers” in the stages of conception and parturition, that fault is small in comparison with gross ignorance, or willful misstatement, of the primary fact in our history by a President of the United States.

Now, the constitution not merely does not say one word about equal rights, but expressly admits the idea of the inequality of human rights.

The Declaration of Independence announced to the world, not that “our fathers had brought forth a new nation,” but that the thirteen colonies had declared themselves free, sovereign and independent States. By the treaty of peace, Great Britain acknowledged, not a “new nation,” but the sovereignty of Massachusetts, New York, etc., name by name, State by State.

But if the assertion of Mr. Lincoln were as correct as it is incorrect, that fact would avail him nothing. This United States is not the United States which fought the War of Independence. This United States is the result of the ratification of a compact known as the constitution by eleven States originally, and such as have acceded since.  The States met in convention to form a government for themselves.

They framed a plan which was to go into operation when nine States acceded to and ratified it. In that convention some delegates from the (now) free States, and some from Virginia, felt and talked about slavery just as Mr. Lincoln feels and talks, just as Wendell Phillips feels and talks, just as Greeley feels and writes. Some others felt and talked just as we feel and write, that slavery is an injury to the interests of both slave and master. Georgia and South Carolina said in substance, “We do not think as you think; we do not seek to convert you, nor can you convert us. Count us out.” Thereupon it was clear that Maryland, Delaware, the two Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia would form a separate confederacy, and the rest of the States possibly another, if slavery was insisted upon as one of the subjects of Federal cognizance.

The other States had the option either to ally themselves with slavery or to cut loose from it. They chose the former, and cannot now, with the slightest fairness, hold to the benefits and reject the burdens of their bargain.

“But,” says some one, “the world has progressed since the formation of the constitution; slavery was not then regarded by mankind as it is now.” What of that? Faith has not changed; the principles that govern contracts have not changed; your perceptions of the value of the Union have not changed. If the constitution were to be made for the first time tomorrow, you would consent to a political union with slave States upon precisely the same terms as before. Do you want to separate now?

“But there is the war, caused by slavery,” says another. When the rebellion is put down, and the rebels dealt with, the States will still remain with all their rights as named in the constitution. This is a question behind the war and behind the rebellion. The abolitionists are fighting the war to settle it in their own way.

If the States which compose this Union will govern themselves in their feelings to, and relations with each other on the principles which govern honest men in their intercourse with each other, the States can continue in an Union for all time. If they will not, there must always be war; if they cannot; a Federal republic is one of the dreams of the enthusiast. 

Reprinted as “President Lincoln’s Last Speech,” Detroit Free Press, November 29, 1863, p. 2.

William Lloyd Garrison Jr., author and activist, opposing U.S. imperialism in Hawaii (1898)

With the acceptance of Hawaii from the hands of the conspirators who captured it by the naval connivance and aid of the United States, a new creed must be evolved to perpetuate the unjust conditions there existing. A justification has to be found for the diminutive oligarchy which controls, without the consent of the governed, a people as much entitled to self-government as President Dole. The denial of suffrage rights to the Hawaiians, treating truth as geographical, is a betrayal of democracy at home. What shall it profit a nation to conquer all the islands of the sea if thereby the surrender of its own vital principle is the price?

The advocates of the [Spanish-American] war truly say that we have come out of the conflict a different nation. Not, however, in the nobler sense which they would imply, but with that dangerous consciousness of brute strength, destructive to the spirit and tempting to emulation in paths leading to the abyss in which so many promising democracies have perished. To gain the Hawaiian islands by the loss of our belief in “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people,” is a costly exchange. To obtain Cuba and Porto Rico at the expense of an increased standing army and navy is to pay a deadly price. To surrender the Monroe doctrine for the Philippines is to demonstrate that something more than the Spanish squadron went down under Dewey’s guns at Manila. The old chart and compass which have served so well to keep the country clear of the rocks and shoals of international greed will be of little use on this new voyage of imperialism. 

Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Lowell’s classic defence of democracy must be suppressed at Honolulu because they are dangerous utterances under a despotic oligarchy. Every politician henceforth must keep two sets of principles, one for home, the other for colonial consumption, and speak with double tongue.

William Lloyd Garrison, “War and Imperialism Fatal to Self-Government,” The Advocate of Peace 60.9 (October 1898): 210-211.

Helen Gardener, women’s rights advocate, applying the Declaration’s “all men” to “all women” (1913)

In speaking before a great patriotic body of women last week here in Washington our silver-tongued Secretary of State, the Hon. William Jennings Bryan, used these words:

The problems are different, but the principles are the same. Turn back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and apply the principles found in them to our modern questions.

This spirit must lead you to work for the preservation to each individual of his inalienable rights and to keep this a Government of the people, for the people, by the people. You must throw your influence on the side of the people in their struggle for liberty. Then, and then only, will you be true Daughters of the American Revolution.

Now, are women individuals? Are they people? Did the Secretary of State really mean those words at their par value? I hope that he did.

The arguments against woman suffrage are, in point of fact, always in the ultimate analysis simply arguments against self-government. They are in the ultimate analysis based on opposition to our form of government. They are the arguments which have been used by king to serf in all the ages past, with woman now the disqualified unit instead of labor or poverty or any other “lower class.”

If government is to rest upon suffrage at all—that is, upon the expressed will of anybody not a “king by divine right”—who is to decide that you are born with that divine right to vote, to express yourself in civic affairs, and that I am not? When and how did you get the right and where and how did I lose it?

That always puzzles me. I can not remember when I lost it. How did one type of human units get the right to decide that another type of human units shall not have liberty of conscience and expression? I never could understand that. If it is a divine right, what particular streak of divinity has been discovered in man that women lack?

If it is not a natural, inherent, human right, then they say it is a “conferred privilege.” Now, who conferred it? On what basis did they confer it, and where did they get it to confer?

Has the supply run out? Is not special privilege in government, in the final analysis, simply a wrong and an outrage against which people have been fighting since history began? Kings claim to be born with this divine right. The founders of our government scouted the idea—for kings, but not for men. They announced to the world that we are born “free and equal,” and that all just government is based upon the consent of the governed. They said—and both our President and Secretary of State said to us the other day in this patriotic organization of women—that this is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. I hope that they realized, even when they were saying it, that it was only a glittering form of speech. I hope that they realized that it is in fact a government of all of the people by a half of the people for a few of the people.

“Remarks of Helen B. Gardener,” in Hearings Before the Committee on Woman Suffrage (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), 83-84.

The Afro-American, a Baltimore newspaper lamenting on the 50th anniversary of Lincoln’s address the country remains of, by, and for white people (1913)

We are wondering whether Mr. Lincoln had the slightest idea in his mind that the time would ever come when the people of this country would to the conclusion that by the “People” he meant only white people. No one can look over the conditions in the Southland as they prevail today and come to any other conclusions than that “government of the people by the people for the people,” means anything else but government for all the people by the WHITE people. In not one southern state, whether formerly in rebellion or otherwise, but that the government is in the hands of the white people, and is administered solely for the benefit of the white people. The teeming millions of Negroes in the South are not considered when it comes to a question of government, only so far as the white people of that section may feel inclined.

Today the South is in the saddle, and with the single exception of slavery, everything it fought for during the days of the Civil War, it has gained by repression of the Negro within its borders. And the North has quietly allowed it to have its own way. Even now notwithstanding the preelection promises of the President and his sponsers, [sic] in almost every department of the government in Washington, the Negro is beginning to feel the effects of the South holding the reins of government.

The Negro has been loyal all the way through, even under the most adverse circumstances. And when Mr. Lincoln called for Negro volunteers, the call came back to him with the answer: “We are coming Father Abraham, one hundred thousand strong.” And they came and fought and died, and their blood consecrated almost every battlefield from the Potomac to the Gulf. Today that blood is crying from the ground in every Southern State. Will the voice be heard? If it is not heard, little will the great reunion of the “Blue and Gray” on the battlefield of Gettysburg, or elsewhere do towards carrying this great country on and on to the highest pinacle [sic] of civilization. . . .

It would be wise, just at this juncture, to study well the words of the immortal Lincoln, and in order that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth, to recall the fact that at least part of the people of this country are Negroes and at the same time human beings, and civilized human beings at that; struggling towards the light, as God has given them to see the light. 

“A Government of the People,” Afro-American, July 5, 1913, p. 4.

Wayne MacVeagh, former Union soldier and U.S. Attorney General, defining to German immigrants the meaning of America (1915)

The simple truth, which [President Wilson] has been so unwilling to recognize, is that there exists an impassable chasm between a citizen of the United States and a subject of the German Emperor, and there is no possible political alchemy whereby the political standards of the one can be transmuted into the political standards of the other. No matter where a man is born or how he is reared, when he comes to manhood he instinctively prefers to be a citizen or a subject. Our fathers preferred, and we ourselves and our children all prefer, to be free citizens, but we do not for that reason deny to anybody else the privilege of preferring to be the obedient subject of a Kaiser and a Military Caste. We only ask them in all fairness to themselves and to us to make their choice–to be loyal either to the fundamental principles of our Government or those of the government of the Kaiser, and to believe that they cannot be half loyal to the one and half loyal to the other. They must be wholly American, or wholly German, and if they really prefer the German system of government, they should return thither and enjoy it; but if they propose to continue to live here, then they must be loyal to the American system, and there is no possibility for them of mistaking what that system is. Thomas Jefferson declared it to the whole world when he said the just rights of all governments depend upon the consent of the governed, and Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, in a few simple words, stamped it forever upon the history of mankind, in his immortal aspiration, that government of the people, by the people and for the people should never perish from the earth. Whoever accepts without reservation those two principles of government is a loyal American. Whoever pretends to accept them and is at heart disloyal to them is unworthy of American citizenship and ought to be deprived of it, for it is an impassable chasm which those honestly on one side can never pass over to the other.

Wayne MacVeagh, “The Impassable Chasm,” North American Review 202.716 (July 1915): 34.

H.L. Mencken, journalist and satirist, on Lincoln’s words as beautiful nonsense (1922)

The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. 

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday!  The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—”that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.

H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series (New York: Knopf, 1922), pp. 174-75.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. President, literally revisiting Gettysburg (1938)

Immortal deeds and immortal words have created here a shrine of American patriotism. We are encompassed by “the last full measure of devotion” of many men and by the words in which Abraham Lincoln expressed the simple faith for which they died.  . . . [T]he issue which he restated upon this spot seventy-five years ago will be the continuing issue before this nation so long as we cling to the purposes for which it was founded – to preserve under the changing conditions of each generation a people’s government for the people’s good. The task assumes different shapes at different times. Sometimes the threat to popular government comes from political interests, sometimes from economic interests, sometimes we have to beat off all of them together. But the challenge is always the same – whether each generation facing its own circumstances can summon the practical devotion to attain and retain that greatest good for the greatest number which this government of the people was created to ensure.            

Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Address at the Dedication of the Memorial on the Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,” July 3, 1938.

Adlai Stevenson, Democratic Governor of Illinois, interpreting Lincoln’s words in the midst of the Korean War as a call to extend freedom throughout the world (1951)

We are met here today on the field of a bloody, shattering battle. And we meet in reverence for the tall, gaunt man who, standing here 88 years ago, mindful of the dead and the cause for which they here died, phrased in words, clean of all ornament, the duty of the living to continue the struggle . . .

More than the survival of the American Union was at issue here at Gettysburg. Upon the fate of the Union hung the fate of the new dream of democracy throughout the world. . . .

The struggle must be re-fought by every generation and democracy is threatened not alone by hostile ideologies abroad, but by fear, greed, indifference, intolerance, demagoguery and dishonor here at home. …

No, Lincoln’s fight is not finished. The far future into which he looked is here, and we are now the living. Eight and eighty years after he uttered here those immortal words, it is for us, the living, to be re-dedicated to our democratic faith; to be here dedicated to the great task, the same task, remaining before us. The fight goes on. Cemetery Ridge is shrouded in the mist of history. But American boys are dying today on Heartbreak Ridge far away for the last, best hope of collective security, of peace and freedom for all, to choose their way of life. 

Proud of the past, impatient with what Washington called ‘the impostures of pretended patriotism,’ it is for us, the living, to rekindle the hot, indignant fires of faith in the free man, free in body, free in mind, free in spirit, free to hold any opinion, free to search and find the truth for himself; the old faith that is ever new—that burned so brightly here at Gettysburg long ago.

Adlai Stevenson, “Remarks at Gettysburg,” November 19, 1951, in Harold Holzer, ed., The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on his Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now (New York: Library of America, 2009), pp. 575-578.

Carl Sandburg, poet and author, reading the Gettysburg Address as part Lincoln, part Jefferson (1954)

[Lincoln] had stood that day, the world’s foremost spokesman of popular government, saying that democracy was yet worth fighting for. What he meant by “a new birth of freedom” for the nation could have a thousand interpretations. The taller riddles of democracy stood up out of the address. It had the dream touch of vast and furious events epitomized for any foreteller to read what was to come. His cadences sang the ancient song that where there is freedom men have fought and sacrificed for it, and that freedom is worth men’s dying for. For the first time since he became President he had on a dramatic occasion declaimed, howsoever it might be read, Jefferson’s proposition which had been a slogan of the Revolutionary War – “All men are created equal” – leaving no other inference than that he regarded the Negro slave as a man. His outwardly smooth sentences were inside of them gnarled and tough with the enigmas of the American experiment.

Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years and the War Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1954), p. 447.

Walter Judd, U.S. representative (R-MN) and outspoken anti-communist, enlisting Lincoln and God into the Cold War at the Republican National Convention (1960)

Lincoln and the Republican party led our country through the crisis of 100 years ago. Now we are engaged in a greater conflict—the whole planet is in the throes of the mightiest conflict in all history. It is a world civil war. What is it about? It is about exactly the same thing as then: Is Government of the people, by the people, and therefore for the people to perish, literally, from the earth? . . . If we in America of whatever political opinion at the moment, are to prove worthy of this most terrible testing in our Nation’s life, we too must resolve with Lincoln, “that under God, this Nation shall have a new birth of freedom.” It was under God that our freedom was born. Only under God can there be a rebirth. . . 

Walter H. Judd, “Keynote Speech at the Republican National Convention, July 25, 1960,” Washington Post, July 26, 1960, p. A8.

Willmoore Kendall, political scientist, leading a conservative assault on Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration and the Constitution (1967)

[A]fter Gettysburg, the idea [“that all men are created equal”] rapidly acquired sensu stricto, biblical status, which is to say: Like many perplexing sentences in Holy Scripture, it now comes readily to the lips—all too readily, one is tempted to say—as a statement that (a) must be correct, somehow, or one wouldn’t hear it so often from such highly authoritative quarters, and (b) need not, cannot, be acted upon, because we are so far from clear as to what they mean. . . . Today, however, with people making noises to the effect that we must do something about it, we can hardly avoid the obligation to take a second (or perhaps a first?) look at it.

Lincoln’s statement, we notice at once, breaks down into four distinct—to use his own words—“propositions.” First, the United States, as a nation, was born in 1776. Second, the United States was conceived in liberty. Third, the United States, in the very act of being born was “dedicated” to an overriding purpose—that is, began its life with an understanding of its own meaning that is best expressed in a single supreme symbol. Fourth, that the proposition to which we are dedicated is “all men are created equal,” and the supreme symbol that expresses our meaning as a nation is “equality.” …

With two of the four explicit propositions set forth in the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address—the United States was conceived in liberty, the United States, in the fact of being born, was dedicated to an overriding purpose—I am in fullest agreement. . . . [T]he remaining two of our four propositions are, from the standpoint of the American political tradition, heretical . . .

Let us look first at Heresy Number One: “Fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation . . .” Now: Lincoln speaks in 1863; fourscore and seven years ago translates . . . into the number 87. Subtract 87 from 1863 . . . and what you get, of course, is 1776 . . . and what you end up with is the proposition: The founding fathers did their work in the year 1776; the “new nation” the United States of America was established through the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence . . .

[W]hat Lincoln did in that opening phrase at Gettysburg … was to falsify the facts of history, and to do so in a way that precisely confuses our self-understanding as a people. The facts, as it happens, are extremely simple and, moreover, well-known to all of us save as we fall under the spell of Lincoln’s rhetoric: The Declaration of Independence, as signed at Philadelphia, declared the independence of “the thirteen United States of America”—the independence not of a nation but of a baker’s dozen of new sovereignties . . . The Declaration was, in short, just what its plain language shows it to be, namely a notice served on the government of Great Britain that thirteen of the English colonies were dissolving the political bonds that had hitherto connected them with Great Britain, that, as I put it a moment ago, they—not  it, but they—were henceforth going to govern themselves, and not be governed, or rather misgoverned, from faraway London. . . . To ask or claim more than that for it is, I contend, an act of political heresy . . . 

So much for the first of the two Lincoln propositions with which I am taking issue; and, happily (since my time grows short) we have, in disposing of it, largely disposed of the second one: “[The] new nation . . . [was] dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Here we can rely not primarily on a simple appeal to history but a simple appeal to logic. If the Declaration of Independence did not bring forth a new nation, as it certainly did not, if it was not a solemn act by which a single people constituted itself an agent for action in history, then we cannot tear from the Declaration—that is, tear from its proper context—a single proposition, and do with it what Lincoln tries to do with the words “all men are created equal”; and if we cannot, then the whole case for our commitment to equality as a national goal crashes to the ground. We have no such commitment (unless—I do not exclude the possibility—we have acquired it at some later date); we have, collectively and individually, no obligation to promote the overriding purpose; the whole business is a further Lincolnian heresy . . .

The proposition “all men are created equal” is so ambiguous as to merit classification as, for all practical purposes, meaningless and therefore useless—especially if, in reading it, we take into account the time at which it was written. . . . [But] even if we withdraw the objection that the proposition to which we are allegedly “dedicated” is meaningless  . . . there remains this point that we have heard curiously little about from our egalitarian political scientists and historians. The founding fathers at Philadelphia, who did deliberate, and did produce a document in which we the American people do constitute ourselves a nation, and did dedicate us to an overriding purpose, and did submit their handiwork for ratification by Us the American people, certainly had in front of them the Declaration of Independence, . . . certainly I say had at some point to face the question “What are we going to do about the Declaration of Independence?,” and seem to have decided . . . either first to ignore it (they do make no reference to it or repeat any of its language), or, second, to, if I dare say it, repudiate it—by  forestalling any appeal back of it, and to its credo, of the kind that Lincoln is to make in the mid-nineteenth century . .  . In short: I find myself unable to read the Preamble of the Constitution (which we have never repudiated, never revised) as other than an express repudiation of the tenet of the Declaration’s creed that might seem to commit us somehow to equality.

And I conclude: The Declaration of Independence does not commit us to equality as a national goal—for more reasons than you can shake a stick at.

Willmoore Kendall, “Equality: Commitment or Ideal?” Phalanx 1 (Fall 1967), reprinted in Intercollegiate Review 24.2 (Spring 1989): 25-33.

Garry Wills, historian, on the magic trick Lincoln pulled out of his hat at Gettysburg (1992)

He would cleanse the Constitution—not, as William Lloyd Garrison had, by burning an instrument that countenanced slavery. He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise, bringing it to its own indictment. By implicitly doing this, he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them.  They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 38.

Gary Laderman, religious studies professor, terming the rhetoric of war sacrifice “a lost cause” (2006)

Presidents have religiously evoked the founding principles of the United States — freedom vs. tyranny, democracy vs. totalitarianism, justice vs. injustice—in times of military conflict. They must be especially adept at rhetorical flourishes that transform military deaths into symbols: soldiers don’t die for policy, they die for their country, for our way of life. This rhetoric seeks to explain why their sacrifice was necessary, and to rationalize even greater sacrifice to come. . . .

No one conveyed the sacrificial equation better than Abraham Lincoln, when, standing on the nation’s first national cemetery, the 16th president declared 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.”

War is the fertile soil out of which a “new birth of freedom” turns death into life, national crises into social reinvigoration. Unfortunately, from the Vietnam era to the present day, presidents have found it far more difficult to make and sustain a case that the deaths of our soldiers are necessary to the life of our nation.

In the late 1960s, as images of more and more body bags made their way into public consciousness, and as protests began to mount challenging the political justifications for war in Vietnam, Presidents Johnson and especially Nixon lost the faith of an increasing number of Americans, who no longer agreed with the presidential sacrificial rhetoric about the price of freedom and the stakes for ensuring democracy. . . .

It is clear that this Memorial Day, national unity centered on the war dead is a lost cause. Americans steadfastly honor the warrior but, increasingly, not the war. On Monday, remember the living soldiers still fighting in Basra and Kandahar, picture them in the midst of life with all their limbs, above ground and available for the loved ones at home. The challenge President Bush faces is whether he can still justify the loss of their lives in the name of national vitality. That is a question every American should be asking. We owe it to the living, and the dead.

Gary Laderman, “War Dead Give Life to Nation; But Presidents Finding Losses Harder to Justify,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 28, 2006, p. B4.

Eliot Spitzer, lawyer and Democratic politician, on contemporary Americans as sacrifice avoiders (2010)

How quickly we forget. Just days ago, on Memorial Day—a day of gratitude, respect, and celebration—the words of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were read at ceremonies across the nation. The phrase from that speech that always sticks with me is the challenge President Lincoln set forth for us: “[R]esolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” He implored us not to shy away from the sacrifices we too have an obligation to shoulder in order to advance the “unfinished work” that remained—not merely winning the Civil War and ending slavery, but the continued creation of a nation with opportunity for all.

The question confronting the United States today is whether the notion of sacrifice—personal and collective—still has enough traction in our society to enable us to overcome the range of problems we face. For as much as we might honor the men and women in our armed forces for whom sacrifice is all too real, we know that in almost every matter of importance, Americans have become masters of “sacrifice avoidance.” Every problem is turned into a positive-sum game—spending more, rather than making hard choices; shifting burdens to future generations whose voices can’t be heard; pushing the obligations off to another day or on to another group. . . .

Just think about it. After reading the Gettysburg Address, does it seem onerous to ask for slightly higher marginal tax rates for the top 5 percent, those who benefited so remarkably from the excesses of the boom years, in order to fund the necessary investment in social infrastructure?

After reading the Gettysburg Address, does the idea of a carbon tax to finally move us away from an oil and old-energy dependence that is fouling not only the Gulf of Mexico but our entire climate, foreign policy, and economy seem so outrageous? Given the accomplishments of our global competitors, surely it makes sense to consider longer school days and school years. Don’t the concerns voiced by those who would have to sacrifice somewhat-whether teachers, parents, or students-to accommodate this national imperative seem somewhat less compelling after reading the Gettysburg Address? 

After reading the Gettysburg Address, don’t the bleating self-important concerns of investment bankers whose multimillion-dollar bonuses might be jeopardized by a somewhat more rigorous regulatory structure seem downright offensive?

Yet our dedication to the sacrifices needed to complete the unfinished business that President Lincoln referred to is absent. The voice we need to hear right now is President Obama’s-evoking the language of his great predecessors, from Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt-inspiring in all of us a greater sense of national purpose.

Eliot Spitzer, “Read the Gettysburg Address,” Slate, June 4, 2010. 

Excerpted from The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation by Stephen Prothero (HarperCollins, 2012). 

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