Beginning with the now-iconic phrase "Four score and seven years ago...", Lincoln referred to the events of the Civil War and described the ceremony at Gettysburg as an opportunity not only to consecrate the grounds of a cemetery, but also to dedicate the living to the struggle to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth".
Despite the speech's prominent place in the history and popular culture of the United States, the exact wording of the speech is disputed. The five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address differ in a number of details and also differ from contemporary newspaper reprints of the speech.
From July 1–3, 1863, more than 160,000 American soldiers clashed in the Battle of Gettysburg, in what would prove to be a turning point of the Civil War. The battle also had a major impact on the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which numbered only 2,400 inhabitants. The battlefield contained the bodies of more than 7,500 dead soldiers and several thousand horses of the Army of the Potomac and the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia, and the stench of rotting bodies in the humid July air was overpowering.
Interring the dead in a dignified and orderly manner became a high priority for the few thousand residents of Gettysburg. Initially, the town planned to buy land for a cemetery and then ask the families of the dead to pay for their burial. However, David Wills, a wealthy 32-year-old attorney, objected to this idea and wrote to the Governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Gregg Curtin, suggesting instead a National Cemetery to be funded by the states. Wills was authorized to purchase 17 acres (69,000 m²) for a cemetery to honor those lost in the summer's battle, paying $2,475.87 for the land.
Wills originally planned to dedicate this new cemetery on Wednesday, October 23, and invited Edward Everett, who had served as Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, Governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard University, and Vice Presidential candidate, to be the main speaker. At that time, Everett was a widely famed orator. In reply, Everett told Wills and his organizing committee that he would be unable to prepare an appropriate speech in such a short period of time, and requested that the date be postponed. The committee agreed, and the dedication was postponed until Thursday, November 19.
Almost as an afterthought, Wills and the event committee invited President Lincoln to participate in the ceremony. Wills's letter stated, "It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks." Lincoln received formal notice of his invitation to participate only seventeen days before the ceremony, while Everett had been invited 40 days earlier: "Although there is some evidence Lincoln expected Wills's letter, its late date makes the author appear presumptuous...Seventeen days was extraordinarily short notice for presidential participation even by nineteenth-century standards." Furthermore, Wills's letter "made it equally clear to the president that he would have only a small part in the ceremonies", perhaps akin to the modern tradition of inviting a noted public figure to do a ribbon-cutting at a grand opening.
Lincoln arrived by train in Gettysburg on November 18, and spent the night as a guest in Wills's house on the Gettysburg town square, where he put the finishing touches on the speech he had written in Washington, D.C. Contrary to popular belief, Lincoln neither completed his address while on the train nor wrote it on the back of an envelope. This story is at odds with the existence of several early drafts on Executive Mansion stationery as well as the reports of Lincoln's final editing while a guest of David Wills in Gettysburg. On the morning of November 19 at 9:30 a.m., Lincoln, astride a chestnut bay horse and riding between Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, joined in a procession with the assembled dignitaries, townspeople, and widows marching out to the grounds to be dedicated.
Approximately 15,000 people are estimated to have attended the ceremony, including the sitting governors of six of the 24 Union states: Andrew Gregg Curtin of Pennsylvania, Augustus Bradford of Maryland, Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, Horatio Seymour of New York, Joel Parker of New Jersey, and David Tod of Ohio. Canadian politician William McDougall attended as Lincoln's guest. The precise location of the program within the grounds of the cemetery is disputed. Reinterment of the bodies buried from field graves into the cemetery, which had begun within months of the battle, was less than half complete on the day of the ceremony.
If the election were to occur now, the result would be extremely doubtful, and although most of our discreet friends are sanguine of the result, my impression is, the chances would be against us. The draft is very odious in the State... the Democratic leaders have succeeded in exciting prejudice and passion, and have infused their poison into the minds of the people to a very large extent, and the changes are against us.
By November 1863, Lincoln was quite sensible of the fact that he needed to do or say something that would revive the Union's spirits toward the war effort.
The speech was well received, as erudite, moving, and well-delivered, but would only moments later be eclipsed.
The Gettysburg Address was not considered a great success at the time. Some eye-witness reports say there was little or no applause. Newspaper responses varied from indifference to predictable partisan praise or condemnation. However, various scholars and journalists subsequently analyzed the short speech. The lawyer-abolitionist Lysander Spooner lampooned the notion that the war "Saved the Country," and "Preserved our Glorious Union," writing that "the only idea they have ever manifested as to what is a government of consent, is this - that it is one to which everybody must consent, or be shot. In the 20th century, the American journalist H. L. Mencken wrote:
"The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history...the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination - that government of the people by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union solders in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves." H. L. Mencken on the Gettysburg Address.
Shelby Foote, novelist and notable historian of the Civil War, said, "We don’t believe that government of and by and for the people would have perished from the earth if the South had won the war, although we are required to memorize those very words in school.
Thomas DiLorenzo, author of The Real Lincoln wrote:
Lincoln argued that secession would "destroy" the government, but such an argument was simply foolish. ... It was equally absurd for Lincoln to argue that representative government would "perish from the earth" if the Southern states were allowed to secede peacefully. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln claimed that the war was being fought in defense of government by consent, but in fact exactly the opposite was true: the Federal government under Lincoln sought to deny Southerners the right of government by consent, for they certainly did not consent to remaining in the Union.
In Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills notes the parallels between Lincoln's speech and Pericles's Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War as described by Thucydides. (James McPherson notes this connection in his review of Wills's book.). Pericles's speech, like Lincoln's, begins with an acknowledgment of revered predecessors: "I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present"; then praises the uniqueness of the State's commitment to democracy: "If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences"; honors the sacrifice of the slain, "Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face"; and exhorts the living to continue the struggle: "You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. In contrast, writer Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, notes that while Everett's Oration was explicitly neoclassical, referring directly to Marathon and Pericles, "Lincoln’s rhetoric is, instead, deliberately Biblical. (It is difficult to find a single obviously classical reference in all of his speeches.) Lincoln had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis."
Several theories have been advanced by Lincoln scholars to explain the provenance of Lincoln's famous phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people." In a discussion "A more probable origin of a famous Lincoln phrase, in The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Albert Shaw credits a correspondent with pointing out the writings of William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, who wrote in the 1888 work Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of A Great Life that he had brought to Lincoln some of the sermons of abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, of Massachusetts, and that Lincoln was moved by Parker's use of this idea:
Craig R. Smith, in "Criticism of Political Rhetoric and Disciplinary Integrity", suggested Lincoln's view of the government as expressed in the Gettysburg Address was influenced by the noted speech of Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, the "Second Reply to Hayne", in which Webster famously thundered "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable! Specifically, in this January 26, 1830 speech before the United States Senate, Webster described the Federal Government as: "made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people," foreshadowing Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Webster also noted, "This government, Sir, is the independent offspring of the popular will. It is not the creature of State legislatures; nay, more, if the whole truth must be told, the people brought it into existence, established it, and have hitherto supported it, for the very purpose, amongst others, of imposing certain salutary restraints on State sovereignties."
Wills observed Lincoln's usage of the imagery of birth, life, and death in reference to a nation "brought forth," "conceived," and that shall not "perish. Others, including Allen C. Guelzo, the director of Civil War Era studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, suggested that Lincoln's formulation "four score and seven" was an allusion to the King James Version of the Bible's , in which man's lifespan is given as "threescore years and ten".
The Hay Draft differed from the version of the Gettysburg Address published by John Nicolay in 1894 in a number of significant ways: it was written on a different type of paper, had a different number of words per line and number of lines, and contained editorial revisions in Lincoln's hand.
Both the Hay and Nicolay copies of the Address are within the Library of Congress, encased in specially-designed, temperature-controlled, sealed containers with argon gas in order to protect the documents from oxidation and continued degeneration.
This version has been described as "the most inexplicable" of the drafts and is sometimes referred to as the "second draft. The "Hay Copy" was made either on the morning of the delivery of the Address, or shortly after Lincoln's return to Washington. Those that believe that it was completed on the morning of his address point to the fact that it contains certain phrases that are not in the first draft but are in the reports of the address as delivered and in subsequent copies made by Lincoln. It is probable, they conclude, that, as stated in the explanatory note accompanying the original copies of the first and second drafts in the Library of Congress, Lincoln held this second draft when he delivered the address. Lincoln eventually gave this copy to his other personal secretary, John Hay, whose descendants donated both it and the Nicolay Copy to the Library of Congress in 1916.
This draft now hangs in the Lincoln Room of the White House, a gift of Oscar B. Cintas, former Cuban Ambassador to the United States. Cintas, a wealthy collector of art and manuscripts, purchased the Bliss Copy at a public auction in 1949 for $54,000, at that time the highest price ever paid for a document at public auction. Cintas' properties were claimed by the Castro government after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, but Cintas, who died in 1957, willed the Gettysburg Address to the American people, provided it would be kept at the White House, where it was transferred in 1959.
Garry Wills concluded the Bliss Copy "is stylistically preferable to others in one significant way: Lincoln removed 'here' from 'that cause for which they (here) gave...' The seventh 'here' is in all other versions of the speech." Wills noted the fact that Lincoln "was still making such improvements," suggesting Lincoln was more concerned with a perfected text than with an 'original' one.
In an oft-repeated legend, Lincoln is said to have turned to his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon and remarked that his speech, like a bad plow, "won't scour." According to Garry Wills, this statement has no basis in fact and largely originates from the unreliable recollections of Lamon. In Garry Wills's view, " had done what he wanted to do ."
In a letter to Lincoln written the following day, Everett praised the President for his eloquent and concise speech, saying, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes." Lincoln was glad to know the speech was not a "total failure".
Other public reaction to the speech was divided along partisan lines. The next day the Democratic-leaning Chicago Times observed, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." In contrast, the Republican-oriented New York Times was complimentary. A Massachusetts paper printed the entire speech, commenting that it was "deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma."
Every stenographic report, good, bad and indifferent, says 'that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom.' There was no common source from which all the reporters could have obtained those words but from Lincoln's own lips at the time of delivery. It will not do to say that [Secretary of War] Stanton suggested those words after Lincoln's return to Washington, for the words were telegraphed by at least three reporters on the afternoon of the delivery.
The reporters present included Joseph Gilbert, from the Associated Press; Charles Hale, from the Boston Advertiser; John R. Young, from the Philadelphia Press (and future Librarian of Congress); and reporters from the Cincinnati Commercial, New York Tribune, and New York Times. Charles Hale "had notebook and pencil in hand, [and] took down the slow-spoken words of the President". "He took down what he declared was the exact language of Lincoln's address, and his declaration was as good as the oath of a court stenographer. His associates confirmed his testimony, which was received, as it deserved to be at its face value. The most logical explanation is that Lincoln deviated from his prepared text and inserted the phrase when he spoke.
He has stood that day, the world's foremost spokesman of popular government, saying that democracy was yet worth fighting for. He had spoken as one in mist who might head on deeper yet into the mist. He incarnated the assurances and pretenses of popular government, implied that it could and might perish from the earth. What he meant by "a new birth of freedom" for the nation could have a thousand interpretations. The taller riddles of democracy stood up out of the address. It had the dream touch of vast and furious events epitomized for any foreteller to read what was to come. He did not assume that the drafted soldiers, substitutes, and bounty-paid privates had died willingly under Lee's shot and shell, in deliberate consecration of themselves to the Union cause. His cadences sang the ancient song that where there is freedom men have fought and sacrificed for it, and that freedom is worth men's dying for. For the first time since he became President he had on a dramatic occasion declaimed, howsoever it might be read, Jefferson's proposition which had been a slogan of the Revolutionary War - "All men are created equal" - leaving no inference other than that he regarded the Negro slave as a man. His outwardly smooth sentences were inside of them gnarled and tough with the enigmas of the American experiment.
The importance of the Gettysburg Address in the history of the United States is underscored by its enduring presence in American culture. In addition to its prominent place carved into a stone cella on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Gettysburg Address is frequently referred to in works of popular culture, with the implicit expectation that contemporary audiences will be familiar with Lincoln's words.
In the many generations that have passed since the Address, it has remained among the most famous speeches in American history. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is itself referenced in another of those famed orations, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, King began with a reference to President Lincoln and his enduring words: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice."
The Constitution of France (under the present Fifth Republic) states that the principle of the Republic of France is "gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple" ("government of the people, by the people, and for the people,") a literal translation of Lincoln's words.