Our Better Angels

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Lincoln speaks to his weary people. Congressional Record/AP

On this date 156 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was asked to "give a few appropriate thoughts" at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was only four and a half months after the Union armies had defeated those of the Confederacy in a bitter, bloody, years-long Civil War that had left the country deeply weary and divided. Lincoln himself was said to be distracted by the illness of his son, who soon died, and the enormity of seeking to bequeath to Americans a renewed sense of unity, meaning and hope after the ghastly losses of the war. Lincoln's towering Gettysburg Address - just 271 words and two minutes long - wasn't even the main speech of that Thursday, November 19, 1863; it came after Edward Everett, former Massachusetts governor and Secretary of State, gave a 13,607 word, two-hour speech now largely lost to history. Today, Lincoln's grave, eloquent, painstakingly crafted address is considered one of the most powerful political speeches ever, starting with its ringing opening lines: "Four score 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."

The New York Times reported Lincoln read the speech, standing on a wooden platform, "in a very deliberate manner, with strong emphasis, and with a most business-like air." That day, he gave the earliest version of what became five, slightly different iterations of the speech; he delivered later ones at several soldiers' benefits. Critics have cited his multiple sources, from the King James Bible - "fourscore and seven years ago” echoes Psalm 90:10 - to the country's own founding documents - government of/by/for the people - to Lincoln's own stirring sense of oratory. Despite its enduring power, the speech was at first dismissed in the press - The Chicago Times called it "silly, flat and dish-watery utterances" - and Lincoln felt he'd failed, claiming, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." But historians argue that, in a mere ten sentences, he created perhaps the most potent, concise, and resonant statement of American national purpose, encapsulating all the struggles of his time and transforming them into hope for those in need of it. Above all, he kept a sharp focus on "the great task remaining before us," resolving that, despite strife and division, "this nation (shall) have a new birth of freedom" - and reminding us what is possible.

"Four score 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 battle-field 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.

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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."

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