Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Gettysburg Address

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

When Robert E. Lee decided to invade the North in July of 1863, luring the Army of the Potomac out of Virginia, he had no idea that he would lay the foundation of the Conferacy's defeat and set up one of the most ephocal moments in American history.  Within the span of three days, names like Devil's Den, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, Culp's Hill, Peach Orchard and Pickett's Charge would forever be engrained into every American history book.  And within those same three days, nearly 8,000 soldiers died and another 28,000 injured.

During that summer, the town of Gettysburg tried to recover from the massive death toll.  Judge David Wills wrote to Pennsylvania's governor about corpses that lined the streets and other unseemly situations.  “In many instances, arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude. And my attention has been called to several places, where the hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them.”

Within a few months, Wills had devised a plan for a national cemetary and invited several dignitaries to speak at a dedicatory event.  Edward Everett was the keynote speaker, with President Lincoln giving a brief remark afterwards.  In fact, his Gettysburg Address was just 272 words in length, consuming only 180 seconds of history. 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 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 here 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.

Lincoln believed "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here" but he could not have been more wrong.  Those 272 words have become the best known words of American history.  Future President Teddy Roosevelt called one of the "great classics of human eloquence--of that eloquence which shows forth its human soul."  In the view of historian James McPherson, it stands as "the world's foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them."

At the time, many were unimpressed.  Harrisburg's Patriot & Union declared Lincoln "the jester" and stated that "whatever may be the President's virtues, he does not possess sense."

Today, President Obama created yet another stir.  Film-maker and master story-teller Kens Burns, doing a project called Learn the Address, filmed some 61 high profile Americans reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.  President Obama omitted "under God" when reading "the nation...shall have a new birth of freedom."  Supposedly, Mr. Burns provided the White House with this version, called the Nicolay version.

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