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Gettysburg Address: A Reaffirmation of a Founding Principle of the United States

A painting of Abraham Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address by J. L. G. Ferris (c. 1900) Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address wass a reaffirmation of a founding principle of the United States: that all humans are born equal.

The Battle of Gettysburg took place during July 1–3, 1863, and resulted in the retreat of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from its incursion into Union territory. On November 19, months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) attended a ceremony dedicating a national cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield site. The Gettysburg Address is the speech he gave to the assembled crowd at the ceremony, and it is widely celebrated as one of the most important and influential political speeches in the history of the United States. Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address,

… wehere highly resolve that these dead shall not havedied in vain- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, for thepeople, shall not perish from the earth.

When President Lincoln delivered his address, he was second on the bill to Edward Everett (1794–1865), a famed orator who gave a two-hour-long speech to the assembled crowd. Lincoln’s speech was incomparably shorter, lasting no longer than two to three minutes, and encompassing about 250 words. Yet in that speech, the president reflected the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence (1776), the founding document of the American nation. His simple, eloquent expression of the notion that the nation was founded for equality, and for the good of all people, not once referred to slavery, the Confederacy, the Union, or any of the political issues of the day.

It is unclear what the reaction to Lincoln’s speech was at the time, after less than two years after giving it the president was dead and the civil war over. However, the impact of the Gettysburg Address lived on as a model of political rhetoric, oratorical simplicity, and political ideology. The speech turned the nation’s political attention toward the unifying ideal that all people are born equal—an ideal that is almost universally assumed today.

The Gettysburg Address is credited as being largely responsible for the introduction of that ideal into U.S. political discourse, and it remains an important political reference point today.

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Posted in Philosophy and Wisdom