Putting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address In its Original Context

To mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Steve Inskeep talks to historian Eric Foner, whose book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One hundred fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. The speech, beginning "Four score and seven years ago," holds a giant place in American culture.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It was read aloud to mark the anniversary of 9/11. Generations of students memorized it - or at least heard the joke about sending a letter to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

MONTAGNE: Last week, a Pennsylvania newspaper retracted its own criticism of the speech back in 1863. That prompted NBC's "Saturday Night Live" to invite the reviewer to say why he still hates it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" CLIP)

TARAN KILLAM: (As character) Four snores and seven yawns ago...

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

KILLAM: (As character)...this reviewer watched the president's speech at Gettysburg. And let's be honest, Abe. You dropped a real Lincoln log.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: In a moment, we will hear the Gettysburg Address as read by some of our NPR colleagues. Let's start by putting the speech back in its original context. What was it like when Lincoln said it?

Eric Foner, whose book include "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery," says Lincoln spoke during a bloody year of the Civil War.

ERIC FONER: The Union had won, in fact, two major victories in early July 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg, which was the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere; and then also at Vicksburg, where a major Confederate bastion had surrendered just around that time.

INSKEEP: But casualties were immense at Gettysburg - 50,000 killed and wounded on both sides. Lincoln was invited to join the dedication of a cemetery there. His talk was part of a larger ceremony, attended by thousands. The president was invited late but plainly, gave his words a lot of thought.

FONER: One of the wonderful things about this speech is, in something like 272 words, Lincoln is trying to speak about what the war is about; why are we fighting this war? And he was distilling thoughts he'd had even long before the Civil War.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that if you're reading many, many of Lincoln's writings and speeches over the years, you see precedents for the ideas that he lays out?

FONER: Oh, absolutely. The two key ideas in this speech, are ones that Lincoln had repeated in different language many, many times before. One, that the founding principle of the United States was equality. Before the war, many times, he had cited the Declaration of Independence - "all men are created equal," Jefferson's words - as the basic principle of American life.

Now, of course, there was no equality before the Civil War. Four million people were slaves; free African-Americans did not enjoy equality. Lincoln always put this up as an aspiration. This was the goal the country had to strive for. And secondly, the principle of democracy: Government of the people, by the people.

INSKEEP: Did the war, the Civil War, begin as a war about whether we should be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal?

FONER: No, the war began as a war to save the Union; and that was what Lincoln said at the very beginning. But you have to, then, get to the question: Why save the Union? Lincoln said before the war, "We must save the Union, but it must be a Union worth saving."

INSKEEP: Well, what had happened in the war by the time of this speech, in November of 1863, that made it about equality?

FONER: Well, the turning point of the war, in this regard, had occurred on Jan. 1st, 1863; which was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, making the end of slavery explicitly an aim of the Union war effort. Linking the question of liberty and union together - as Lincoln did in that great document - immediately put the question of equality on the national agenda. In other words, OK, if the Union wins the war, 4 million slaves are going to become free. What is going to be their status in American life?

INSKEEP: Well, let me just mention, in this very brief Gettysburg Address, Lincoln doesn't explicitly mention slavery at any point. Was he still...

FONER: He did not use the word slavery, but he talks about the new birth of freedom. And nobody could mistake what he was talking about, when he talked about a new birth of freedom.

INSKEEP: Was he still being very careful, though, about how he intended to bring about that new birth of freedom in the end?

FONER: Well, you know, Lincoln's aim, in the war, was to win the war. If the Union did not win the war, emancipation would not happen. If the Confederacy won its independence, slavery would last for a long, long time. Lincoln has this amazing way of putting profound questions on the national agenda, without detailing exactly how to live up to them. Equality, democracy - how do we live up to those principles given that slavery is going to end?

INSKEEP: Before we listen to the words of the Gettysburg Address - which we're going to do here, in a moment - would you remind us how he would have delivered them in 1863, to a vast crowd of people? Would he be shouting at the top of his lungs?

FONER: You know, Lincoln did not have a microphone, or anything like that. He was a longtime - what they called stump speaker, you know, from Illinois. Lincoln had a slightly high-pitched voice. He had a slight Southern twang. But I don't think Lincoln had any problem projecting his voice to a large crowd. He had long experience doing that.

INSKEEP: Do you have a copy of the Gettysburg Address - the text - lying around you?

FONER: I do. I do happen to have it, yes.

INSKEEP: Could I get you to just say the...

FONER: I will read it. I have it. I am not an actor.

INSKEEP: Do it like you're talking, that's just fine.

FONER: OK. (Reading) 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: (Reading) Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

MONTAGNE: (Reading) 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.

JIM WILDMAN: (Reading) But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: (Reading) 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.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: (Reading) 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.

INSKEEP: (Reading) 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: The Gettysburg Address, delivered on this day 150 years ago.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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