The Gettysburg Address
The 19th of November 1863 AD
The significance and power of political speeches can often be in inverse proportion to their length. It is highly unlikely that in future years Libyan children will be able to quote from one of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s interminably rambling perorations, nor Cuban youngsters cite great moments from the five-hour diatribes against the evils of capitalism made by President Fidel Castro. By contrast, the ten sentences spoken by President Abraham Lincoln over just a few minutes at the consecration of the national cemetery at Gettysburg contain phrases with which every American child is familiar, and sentiments dear to those of a democratic turn of mind the world over.
In the first three days of July 1863 almost 8000 men had died at the Battle of Gettysburg in Adams County, Pennsylvania, and more than 27000 others were wounded. The battle was one of the great turning points of the war, and thus of American history, Lee’s Confederate Army driven back to the south by General George Meade’s Union forces. In all 3512 Union dead would be re-buried in the cemetery, the process still underway of transferring their remains from shallow and mass graves to individual ones fitting to heroes of the Civil War . Lincoln had been asked to say a few words at the consecration of the ground.
Beginning his speech with the words ‘Four score and seven years ago,’ Lincoln associated the contemporary struggle with the founders of the United States, stating they had created a new nation conceived in liberty and based on the principal of equality. He honoured the dead as deserving immortal fame, fighting as they had for that noble cause of freedom, indeed that: ‘This nation under god shall have a new birth of freedom,’ ending with the hope that because of their sacrifice: ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.’
A century later, in August 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the spirit of Lincoln’s address in his own famous ‘I have a dream’ speech which itself furthered once more the cause of liberty in America, though few if any would say that the cause even now is truly won.
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