Short Speech Still Resonates: The Gettysburg Address Turns 150

Tuesday marks the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg address. President Abraham Lincoln delivered these 278 words at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg. Melissa Block talks with Civil War historian Harold Holzer about the address.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. A few appropriate remarks. That was the invitation extended to President Lincoln. Would he formally consecrate the National Cemetery at Gettysburg with a few appropriate remarks? Lincoln's speech, delivered 150 years ago, the Gettysburg Address, is, of course, now considered among the most famous in U.S. history.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 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.

BLOCK: It's a speech of remarkable brevity, about 270 words. It took Lincoln just two, maybe three minutes to deliver with interruptions for applause.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

BLOCK: Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, more than 50,000 dead and wounded. When Lincoln spoke, it was more than four months after that battle. Bodies of Union soldiers that had been hastily buried in makeshift field graves were being reinterred in the new cemetery and carcasses of dead horses were still strewn all over the battlefield.

HAROLD HOLZER: It is almost inconceivable to think of what that area was like over the miles square that this battle took place in.

BLOCK: That's Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer.

HOLZER: There were hundreds of dead animals, probably thousands of dead horses and then add to all of that the heat of the Pennsylvania summer, really made the town almost unbearable and people walked around with scented handkerchiefs over their noses for months.

And the odor apparently lingered into the winter, long past the day this ceremony took place.

BLOCK: On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln rose before the crowd, 10 maybe 20,000 people. They converged on the small town of Gettysburg for the event. And Harold Holzer explains, in those brief remarks, Lincoln called on the nation to fulfill the pledge of equality spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, that cause for which the Gettysburg dead gave the last full measure of devotion.

HOLZER: It is almost to take a subject, any subject, and I would think any writer, with all due respect to great writers, and do something so declarative and so emotional and so transformative in the space of time that he took in just a few sentences, as you say, of 270 or so words, dedicated to consecration and rebirth at the same time, using Gettysburg as the springboard for a new birth of freedom throughout the whole country, never mentioning specific subjects unrelated to the consecration, but clearly implying that the time had come for America to continue, as he said, its unfinished work and embrace African Americans as part of the promise of the new birth of freedom. It's extraordinary.

BLOCK: When you say embrace the cause or embrace African Americans, that's implicit in the text, but certainly not explicit.

HOLZER: That's sort of the remarkable thing about it and probably why it has stirred conversation on every anniversary now for the sesquicentennial especially, is that it almost rose above specific issues and controversies and attempted to steer everyone, no matter what their political view, toward the idea that the country had changed and that it would emerge from the Post-Gettysburg, Post-Civil War era as a totally different country.

BLOCK: There's that famous note of humility embedded in this speech when Lincoln says the world will little note nor long remember what we say here.

HOLZER: Well, he was a modest person, but I don't believe he thought it for a minute. So it's the biggest mistake he ever made in the speech.

BLOCK: There are a number of myths surrounding the Gettysburg Address that have sprung up over the years. What are a couple of them?

HOLZER: One of the myths is that he regarded it as a flat failure. He allegedly turned to his friend Ward Lamon, who was the master of ceremonies at the event, and said, the speech won't scour. It's a flat failure. I should've done more work on it. I don't think he was received disrespectfully at all and it wouldn't have happened. And if there was silence as some allege at the end of the speech, it was probably because people were either dazzled or surprised that it was so brief.

The other myth is that it was ridiculed and attacked universally as inappropriate after it was delivered. And I think if you carefully look at the newspapers of the day, you find out that public opinion broke in an entirely and predictably partisan way, that is Republican newspapers cheered the address and praised it to the skies and Democratic newspapers, fearful, I think, that it was an opening salvo on a presidential reelection campaign attacked it and attacked Lincoln.

So I think the myth of the failure is the biggest myth of all. There are lots of little disagreements. Was Lincoln audible or not audible? Was it warm or was it cold? Did Lincoln arrive on a gallant horse or did he ride on an animal that was so short that his legs were dragging along the ground? You can go on and on and on and on. But...

BLOCK: Did he ride in on the back of an envelope?

HOLZER: Oh, I forgot. That's, of course, I had even discarded that because it's such an old story. The truth is, Lincoln prepared it very carefully, as carefully as he had — was able to prepare anything during his presidency, including his annual messages which were the equivalent of State of the Union messages today.

He worked whenever he could for a couple of weeks on it and as a Rhode Island newspaper acknowledged afterwards it's harder to write a short speech than it is a long speech in many ways because of the compression of emotion and ideas that brevity requires.

BLOCK: When you think about the Gettysburg Address 150 years after it was delivered, what to you seems the most timely part of what Lincoln had to say on that day?

HOLZER: I think the most timely section, the most relevant for today, is the concept of unfinished work. America's work is always unfinished, I suppose. There are goals that we yearn to achieve and that others really resist achieving. Twas ever thus. President Obama paraphrased that famous line when he went to the 50th anniversary of the "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, appropriately enough this summer.

And he talked about America's unfinished business and completing America's unfinished business. There is a concept that we adopted centuries ago of a perfect union or at least a more perfect union, which indicates that there's always work to be done and we still walk that walk and march that march in quest of the more perfect union.

I think Lincoln was looking at the fact that America's founders had created a government and now we were testing whether the government could survive an internal challenge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 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.

HOLZER: That's the part that continues to challenge us, a notion that there's always work to be done to achieve the more perfect union.

BLOCK: Harold Holzer, thanks so much for talking to us.

HOLZER: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer helping us mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

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