The United States is remembering one of history’s most famous speeches today, marking 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address called on his war-torn nation to renew its quest for freedom and equality for all.
Lincoln’s speech of November 19, 1863 — 87 years after the country declared independence from England — was given amidst the country’s bitter Civil War between a group of Southern states seeking to secede from the national union of states, largely over the Southern practice of slave ownership.
In the two-minute speech, Lincoln, the country’s 16th president, said “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” at the battlefield in the hamlet of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In fact, generations of American school children have memorized it.
Historian Carolyn Eastman of Virginia Commonwealth University calls the speech the “greatest piece of oratory ever given by a U.S. president,” saying its message resonates beyond the United States.
“One of the most beautiful things it does is again remind us how important it is to seek freedom and even the worst things — the loss of life and limb — can be worth the quest for freedom.”
One of the key turning points of the war occurred in Gettysburg in July of 1863, when General Robert E. Lee, leader of the secessionists, made his most ambitious foray into the northern part of the country. After three days of fierce fighting that resulted in an estimated 50,000 casualties, Union troops repelled Lee’s forces in a battle that some historians now call the most decisive turn for northern forces.
Nearly four months later, Lincoln gave his speech at the battlefield, an oratory that some newspaper accounts at the time derided as “silly” and irrelevant. Recalling the country’s 1776 Declaration of Independence, Lincoln said the Battle of Gettysburg and other Civil War encounters would test whether any nation founded on the principle of freedom “can long endure.”
The president then called on his countrymen to not only honor those who died at Gettysburg, but said the United States “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.”
Eastman says Lincoln was reminding his countrymen that preservation of the new country and abolition of slavery were worth fighting for.
“In many ways, what he was doing was giving the war a new meaning, a meaning that reflected his own change of mind during the course of the war, and [to] really install into peoples’ minds the notion that the end of slavery was something that mattered.”
Several hundred people gathered at Gettysburg Tuesday to recall the speech and reflect on what it still means to the country.