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On November 19, 1863, amid air faintly fetid from thousands of corpses waiting to be reburied, Edward Everett delivered a two-hour oration at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery. The event, which drew some 15,000, had the feel of a modern rock concert. Everett, a former statesman and college president, and among the preeminent orators of his day, recounted the monumental three-day battle that had left 50,000 dead, wounded, or missing. He ended his speech by referring to the Union dead as “martyr-heroes” and declaring that Gettysburg, already viewed as turning point, would become the “brightest page” in America’s history.

President Lincoln then spoke. Since he had been asked to provide only “a few appropriate remarks,” people expected a short speech. Still, they were unprepared for his brevity. Indeed, several photographers failed to get an image, and the only known shot of Lincoln was hastily taken and blurry; it shows him in the center of the crowd, head down and hatless as he reads his address.

Despite his succinctness, Lincoln said more in three minutes than Everett did in two hours. Using language that sounded biblical, he dwelled in abstractions, connecting the carnage at Gettysburg to the nation’s founding ideals. The fate of the Union, and its ideals, hung in the balance. The dead at Gettysburg could regenerate the nation, he emphasized, but only if the living displayed a similar kind of sacrificial devotion.

Lincoln’s address quickly became a part of American scripture, reflecting the nation’s sacred identity. After all, it sanctified the Gettysburg dead, cleansed the Constitution of any brush with slavery, clarified the sacred duties of the living, and foretold of national regeneration. Lincoln envisioned the nation itself as Christlike; and in less than two years, he himself would be cast him as America’s Christ.   

John Stauffer is Professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: 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.

This version of the address is the so-called “Bliss Copy,” one of several iterations that Lincoln wrote. It is widely accepted as the final copy. Text courtesy of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler.