On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of his most remembered speeches, the Gettysburg Address. Given in commemoration of the cemetery created to honor the soldiers who gave their lives on the Pennsylvania battlefield, Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that President Lincoln “translated the story of his country and the meaning of the war to words and ideas accessible to every American.” In fact, the main speaker of the day, Edward Everett, later wrote Lincoln to express that the president’s short speech accomplished what took him two hours to accomplish. While Goodwin’s passage aptly describes Lincoln’s speech, two key passages of the Gettysburg Address also embody the humility of the American president.
In the first passage, Lincoln notes that while he and his fellow Americans were gathered to commemorate a portion of the Gettysburg battlefield as cemetery, those gathered “can not dedicate, [ ] can not consecrate, [ ] can not hallow” the field of battle because only the soldiers who stood battle on that ground can hold that honor. With these words, Lincoln succinctly placed the thousands of soldiers who fought at Gettysburg above his own position. Regardless of his elected position as commander-in-chief, President Lincoln understood the sacrifice of the soldiers who toiled throughout the three-day battle. He further noted that he had no “power to add or detract” from that sacrifice.
Lincoln next compared the action of dedicating the cemetery to the actual battle of Gettysburg: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Again, Lincoln absolutely recognized the primacy of the actual warfighter over any politician. While a politician’s words might soon be forgotten, the glory of defending one’s country, of fighting for just causes, lives on.
Perhaps ironically, President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was not forgotten. But in its brevity, one sees the true nature of Abraham Lincoln. Obviously ambitious and possessing his own vision for the United States, he still recognized the contribution of others to the Union’s Civil War cause.