On a Thursday afternoon in November of 1863, Edward Everett took to the stage in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver the main address at the Consecration Ceremony of the National Cemetery. Everett was a politician who had served as both a classics professor and president of Harvard University, and was also a renowned orator. His address to the 15,000-strong crowd began on the following grandiloquent note, which Everett proceeded to hold for two hours:
“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”
Despite this wave of lofty sentiment, Everett’s speech was overshadowed by the 278-word formulation that would forever commemorate that day, delivered by Abraham Lincoln.
Unlike Everett’s remarks, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (whose five versions can be found here) has shown little wear since its delivery on November 19, exactly 150 years ago. While there is some evidence to suggest that the audience was initially nonplussed by the speech’s simple language and striking brevity, today Lincoln’s words are considered to be among the most finely wrought rhetoric in the Western canon: they remain accessible to all, yet seamlessly entwine the thread of equality that ran so clearly through the Declaration of Independence with the idea of the war being essential to the preservation of the Union. One cannot help but suspect that honest Abe failed to grasp the impact that his pithy oration would have; Everett’s subsequent comments to the President, however, prefigured the speech’s historical arc:
“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.”
In honor of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg address, documentarian Ken Burns has embarked on a project called Learn The Address in an attempt to get Americans to record their recitations of the speech. In the mashup below, Burns provides footage of politicians, entertainers, and journalists giving their renditions. We’ve also included some of our favorites, including Stephen Colbert’s highly comical monologue (top) and Jerry Seinfeld explaining the significance of the address to Louis CK, right above.
For more versions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, including those by President Obama, Conan O’Brien, and Bill O’Reilly, head to Ken Burn’s Learn The Address site.
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.