100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 77



Abraham Lincoln's Gettysberg Address



President Abraham Lincoln was invited to provide a few “appropriate remarks” to an assembly that was to gather and dedicate a Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. Lincoln, master orator, inspirer, and leader, spoke just 266 words that day in a muddy Pennsylvania field commemorating these Union war dead; but they were the most important words ever spoken by an American on America. If one were to add up all the presidents of the United States on one scale Lincoln would still outweigh them on the other. . . .

    Frederick Douglass, who knew the man, spoke from the heart:

A great man: Tender of heart, strong of nerve, of boundless patience and broadest sympathies, with no motive apart from his country. He could receive counsel from a child and give counsel to a sage. The simple approached him with ease—and the learned approached him with deference. Take him for all in all Abraham Lincoln was one of the noblest wisest and best men I ever knew.

    And Leo Tolstoy said:

his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character. Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents were together. We are still too near his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.


   When Lincoln stood up to speak, he looked out over an audience from 10,000 to 20,000 people gathered about Cemetery Hill, the location of intense Confederate bombardment throughout the battle. The new Soldiers Cemetery was located next to the old town cemetery where a sign declared: “All persons found using firearms on these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.”

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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.


    And how did his fellow Americans respond to these words? Let the Chicago Times serve as an example:

The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States. . . . Is Mr. Lincoln less refined than a savage? . . . It was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most  extended charity cannot view it as otherwise than willful.


Or from the Harrisburg Patriot and Union:

. . . we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.

    History has vindicated Lincoln: the Chicago Times no longer exits having merged with the Chicago Herald in 1901, and the Harrisburg Patriot and Union did the decent thing when it printed a retraction 150 years later:

Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.

    We write today in reconsideration of “The Gettysburg Address,” delivered by then-President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the greatest conflict seen on American soil. Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words “silly remarks,” deserving “a veil of oblivion,” apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.

    In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.

    The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record—but we must do as conscience demands.


In July 1963, another American president commented on the events at Gettysburg and spoke about the battle and Lincoln's subsequent speech:

Five score years ago the ground on which we here stand shuddered under the clash of arms and was consecrated for all time by the blood of American manhood. Abraham Lincoln, in dedicating this great battlefield, has expressed, in words too eloquent for paraphrase or summary, why this sacrifice was necessary.

Taking our lead from President Kennedy’s remark, we can conclude that the Gettysburg Address is its own summary.