Four score and seven years ago…
It goes on from there.
If you’re a bit rusty on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, listen to singer Johnny Cash recite the famously brief speech in its entirety, above, from his America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song album. (The acoustic guitar accompaniment is by long time Cash collaborator, Norman Blake.)
A little background for those in need of a refresher: Lincoln delivered the speech in November 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Four months earlier, roughly 10,000 Confederate and Union soldiers perished—and another 30,000 were wounded—during three days of fighting in the area. The Battle of Gettysburg ended in a major victory for the North, though Lincoln was frustrated that General George Meade failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s retreating forces. (Whether or not such a move could have shortened the war is a matter of some debate.)
Lincoln welcomed the invitation to the cemetery’s dedication as a chance to frame the significance of the war in terms of the Declaration of Independence. Slave owners frequently cited the constitutionality of their actions, for unlike the Declaration, the Constitution did not hold that all men were created equal.
The day’s other speaker, former Harvard President and Secretary of State Edward Everett, praised the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of the president’s two minute speech, perhaps blushing a bit, given that he himself had held the podium for two hours.
A year and a half later, when Lincoln was assassinated, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts summed it up:
That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg…and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.” He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it.
(How sorry those gentleman would be to learn just how little most Americans today know of the the Battle of Gettysburg. Fear not, though. A restored version of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary is coming to PBS this fall.)
Please note that Lincoln’s brief remarks were carefully prepared, and not scribbled on the back of an envelope during the train ride that took him to Gettysburg. As a nation, we love folksy origin stories, and depending on the size of one’s penmanship, it is indeed possible to fit 272 words on an envelope, but it’s a myth… no matter what Johnny Cash may say in his introduction.
PS – If you would like to commit the Gettysburg Address to memory, try singing it to the tune of “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. No doubt Professor Lynda Barry would approve.…