When Abraham Lincoln was invited in the fall of 1863 to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was not to give the main speech. That oration was delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts statesman, vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and the most famous orator of his day. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 without notes for over two hours, giving an example of the kind of ornate, learned, and transcendentalist rhetoric that was expected at such ceremonies.
The president used only 272 words in his dedication of the cemetery grounds, with most American newspapers taking little notice of the now famous speech. But the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln to say, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s spare, poetic, and biblical speech buried the old rhetorical style of Everett and set the standard for a new kind of speech, which is still the model for such solemn commemorative occasions. If all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, as Ernest Hemingway suggested, all modern American speeches come out of the Address.
How Lincoln turned a perfunctory eulogy at a cemetery dedication into a concise and profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union is the focus of the EDSITEment lesson The Gettysburg Address: Defining the American Union. The lesson, part of a curriculum unit on the political thought of Lincoln, will deepen student understanding of the momentous themes of freedom, equality, and emancipation so central to any strong understanding of the Civil War experience. Continue reading