Heather Cox Richardson
For three hot days, from July 1 to July 3, 1863, more than 150,000 soldiers from the armies of the United States of America and the Confederate States of America slashed at each other in the hills and through the fields around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
When the battered armies limped out of town after the brutal battle, they left scattered behind them more than seven thousand corpses in a town with fewer than 2500 inhabitants. With the heat of a summer sun beating down, the townspeople had to get the dead soldiers into the ground as quickly as they possibly could, marking the hasty graves with nothing more than pencil on wooden boards.
A local lawyer, David Wills, who had huddled in his cellar with his family and their neighbors during the battle, called for the creation of a national cemetery in the town, where the bodies of the United States soldiers who had died in the battle could be interred with dignity. Officials agreed, and Wills and an organizing committee planned an elaborate dedication ceremony to be held a few weeks after workers began moving remains into the new national cemetery.
They invited state governors, members of Congress, and cabinet members to attend. To deliver the keynote address, they asked prominent orator Edward Everett, who wanted to do such extensive research into the battle that they had to move the ceremony to November 19, a later date than they had first contemplated.
And, almost as an afterthought, they asked President Abraham Lincoln to make a few appropriate remarks. While they probably thought he would not attend, or that if he came he would simply mouth a few platitudes and sit down, President Lincoln had something different in mind.
On November 19, 1863, about fifteen thousand people gathered in Gettysburg for the dedication ceremony. A program of music and prayers preceded Everett’s two-hour oration. Then, after another hymn, Lincoln stood up to speak. Packed in the midst of a sea of frock coats, he began. In his high-pitched voice, speaking slowly, he delivered a two-minute speech that redefined the nation.
“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,” Lincoln began.
While the southern enslavers who were making war on the United States had stood firm on the Constitution and said that its protection of property rights—including their enslavement of their Black neighbors— was the heart of the nation, Lincoln tied the country's meaning instead to the Declaration of Independence.
The men who wrote the Declaration considered the “truths” they listed “self-evident”: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But Lincoln had no such confidence. By his time, the idea that all men were created equal was a “proposition,” and Americans of his day were “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Standing near where so many men had died four months before, Lincoln honored “those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” But he noted that those “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated” the ground “far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Instead, “[i]t is for us the living,” Lincoln said, “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” He urged the men and women in the audience to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
In November 1863, after more than two years of deadly fighting, Lincoln rallied Americans not just behind the idea of freedom for Black Americans that he had declared the previous January with the Emancipation Proclamation, but also behind a new concept of America, one that would bring to life the ideas the founders had put in the Declaration but never brought to life: that all men are created equal, and that governments “derive... their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Lincoln urged Americans “to 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.”