A tall, awkward, angular man stood up on a cold fall day in 1863 and spoke to a crowd assembled on the field of the most terrible battle of our nation’s most terrible war.
There, in the unfinished cemetery near that little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, nothing was certain, least of all the survival of the American experiment.
In his reedy voice and flat accent, Abraham Lincoln set forth a brief history of the union, examined the conflict and gave a vision of what lay beyond. He saw not the old union restored but a new nation, transformed and consecrated by the struggle that attended its birth.
Defying Abraham Lincoln’s modest prediction, the words and vision have survived. They are etched in the stones of monuments and the souls of all Americans. They fill the air each Memorial Day as the nation pauses to reflect on patriotism and sacrifice.
Here is what he said:
Fourscore 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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation, under God, 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.
Abraham Lincoln’s address on Thursday, Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa.