‘Two Minutes of Genius’: The Gettysburg Address of 1863

Written by Bradley Bosson. Edited by Francesca Guardo.

“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.” These were the words of the opening of the Gettysburg Address delivered by Abraham Lincoln, one of the most famous speeches in American history. Despite only being two minutes long, it was able to reaffirm the principles of human rights, equality and liberty, crucial aspects of the ideology of the Union during the Civil War.

The speech was made at the Gettysburg Memorial on the 19th November, 1863 on the opening of the memorial after the burial of Union troops. Although it is Lincoln’s speech that has survived in the memory of historians and scholars of public speaking alike, it was not the only performance of the day. There were performances from bands and other speeches, most notably a two-hour oration delivered by American politician Edward Everett. The ability of Lincoln to overshadow this behemoth of a public speech with a two-minute speech from himself surely demonstrates that despite its extreme simplicity, it was enormously powerful and resonated with many all over the world. Compared to the 13,000 words of Everett, the most accepted version of the Gettysburg Address (the Bliss version) was a mere 271 words long, but every single word captured what the Civil War meant for America and what America should mean to others. It has been noted by some that were close3 to Lincoln that he was unwell when he delivered his speech and eyewitness accounts described him as looking ‘haggard’ and ‘ghastly’. It may have been because of this and the perceived simplicity of the speech that Lincoln said during that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”; obviously not knowing that his words would live on forever.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln constantly refers to America as a ‘nation’, reaffirming the fact that America is a united nation of peoples rather than a loose collection of states that could be separated on a whim. Due to the obvious nature of remembrance, there are many links to the living and the dead during the speech. He maintains that those who died ‘gave the full measure of devotion’ to their cause. The ending line of the speech, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth’ is surely one of the strongest and has many possible influences. Some people close to Lincoln have said that the phrase was influenced greatly by a collection of sermons delivered by abolitionist Theodore Parker; who was very supportive of Lincoln. It has even been claimed that he highlighted the phrase on the manuscript in pencil. Others say that it mainly came from a speech by Daniel Webster in the Senate, where he claimed that the Federal Government was ‘made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people’.

Although significant in the future, the contemporary accounts of reactions to the speech are inconsistent. There are some who said that there was no applause at all due to the sheer shock of the audience. Some such as The New York Times claimed that he had been interrupted five times during his speech with applause. Lincoln himself considered that his speech was not up to standard, possibly due to his illness and the eloquent performance of Everett before him, despite Everett writing to him personally congratulating him. Newspapers that sympathized with the Union such as the previously mentioned New York Times and the Springfield Republican called it a success, the latter even printing the whole speech in full. However, Democratic-leaning accounts called the speech ‘silly’ and ‘ludicrous’.

The legacy of the speech is unquestionable and is still relevant to Americans and others around the world today. It remains on many school curriculums and is referred to in many examples of American popular culture, such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A stone carving of the speech stands at around 40 feet tall and is a prominent feature of the Lincoln Memorial. Most famously, the speech was referenced to in Martin Luther Kings’ ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in the line “Five score years ago” during the March on Washington in 1963; another speech often acclaimed as one of the most important ever. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will surely live on as a sign of public speaking excellence and as a critical moment in the development of the United States for years to come.