After Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Edward Everett who spoke before Lincoln at the dedication wrote, “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 his short address, Lincoln redefined just what the Union Army was fighting for.
The Battle of Gettysburg claimed more lives than any other battle in the Civil War. When the July battle ended, the bodies of the more than 46,000 dead soldiers were left to rot in the hot summer sun until they were slowly moved to temporary graves. When Lincoln arrived for the dedication of the cemetery in November, the Union bodies were still being shifted to permanent sites. With corpses piled next to partially dug graves, the personal costs of war were very apparent to Lincoln and his audience. In his address Lincoln tried to explain what exactly it was that so many soldiers had died for.
Lincoln’s celebrated opening line reads, “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.” In this one line, Lincoln designated equality as well as unity as the values the Civil War tested. Significantly, he chose to describe the signers of the Declaration of Independence as the founding fathers rather than the crafters of the Constitution, a document that does not explicitly mention equality. Garry Wills, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Lincoln at Gettysburg, even argues that the national commitment to equality originates with Lincoln’s 250-word speech at Gettysburg.
A Harvard President and Greek Professor Edward Everett delivered a well-researched, two-hour oration before Lincoln stood to read his address. Yet Lincoln’s words were so powerful, that Everett’s much longer speech has been mostly forgotten. In the letter shown here, Everett admits to Lincoln, “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.” Lincoln replied modestly, “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.” Both letters can be seen at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Though scholars continue to scrutinize every word in the Gettysburg address, none disputes Everett’s praise that Lincoln expressed much about the purpose of the devastating Civil War in very few words.
Read Lincoln and Everett’s Correspondence at the Massachusetts Historical Society
Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills