On this day 147 years ago, the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was dedicated, less than five months after the momentous battle was fought. According to Ronald C. White in his biography, “A. Lincoln”, the dedication was supposed to have occurred on October 23, 1863. One month before that, organizers invited Edward Everett (“the most celebrated speaker in the United States”) to give the main remarks at the dedication. Everett replied that he could not possibly have such a speech ready before November 19 and so that date was selected.
Other notable figures – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant – were invited to participate but all said no. Just two weeks before the ceremony, the organizers invited President Lincoln to attend. He accepted.
Before the 15,000 people who had traveled to the cemetery that day, Everett spoke for more than two hours. Lincoln spoke for two minutes, delivering what historian James McPherson calls “the most famous speech in American 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 here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it 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 can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. 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 shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.