In the autumn of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln received an invitation to give a speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a few months earlier Americans had fought one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The battlefield was being dedicated as a cemetery for soldiers who had died there. Would Lincoln come help honor the dead? The president accepted the invitation.
In the following weeks, Lincoln worked on his speech but did not get a chance to write it all down before the time came to travel to Gettysburg. He finished it there the night before the ceremony. The next morning, November 19, he made a few final changes and a clean copy.
A short time later, the president mounted a horse, joined a procession to the burial ground, and took his place on a wooden platform for the dedication. Thousands of people had gathered on the battlefield. The main speaker of the day, Edward Everett, spoke for two hours. When Everett was through, the president unfolded his single-page manuscript and approached the podium. He spoke for only two minutes. Many in the audience thought he was just getting going when he suddenly finished. Lincoln himself was unsure of the oration’s success. (“Lamon, that speech won’t scour!” he reportedly told a friend.) But with fewer than 300 words, Abraham Lincoln had given the greatest address ever delivered on American soil.
The Gettysburg Address still reminds us that thousands have died defending an ideal on which our country was founded – that all people are created equal. The dead can be honored only if the nation lives up to that ideal, Lincoln asserted. By devoting ourselves to it, and by defending it when necessary, Americans ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”