Historian: Americans Don’t Understand Meaning Behind Gettysburg Address

150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address this month

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• November 2, 2013 12:00 pm


A historian said Friday that Americans often fail to recognize the meaning behind President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ahead of the speech’s 150th anniversary this month.

Allen Guelzo, director of Civil War era studies at Gettysburg College and a renowned Lincoln scholar, said at the Heritage Foundation that Americans typically remember the address for its brevity or phrases like "four score and seven years ago" and "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Lincoln delivered the remarks—comprising just 272 words in 10 sentences—on Nov. 19, 1863, four-and-a-half months after the pivotal battle of Gettysburg left more than 50,000 soldiers dead or wounded. Only a third of the expected bodies had been buried at the cemetery at the time.

Guelzo said Lincoln was "a man of no verbal wastage," providing the thousands gathered at the dedication with a past, present, and future vision of America. The Founding Fathers "brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty" in 1776; the present crowd assembled to honor those "who here gave their lives that that nation might live"; and Lincoln urged the attendees to "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."

The last part, given the historical context of the speech, is the most important, Guelzo said.

"We do not see Lincoln’s subject, the survival of democracy, as Lincoln saw it," he said. "For Lincoln, democracy was an isolated and beleaguered island in a world dominated by monarchies and tyrants."

Lincoln studied the terror of the French Revolution and the military dictatorship of Napoleon, followed by the 19th century revolutions across Europe that were "crushed and subverted by nascent monarchies and romantic philosophers," Guelzo said. Democratic government "lay discredited and disgraced," he added.

Guelzo noted a comment from the time period by Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian ruler who rose to power after Germany’s failed 1848 revolution.

"When you have governed men for several years, you will become a Monarchist," Bismarck said. "Believe me, one cannot lead or bring to prosperity a great nation without the principle of authority—that is, the Monarchy."

Lincoln was determined to prevent the same fate from befalling the United States, Guelzo said.

"The greatness we have not suspected in the [Gettysburg] address lies in its humility, its reminder that the question of democratic survival rested ultimately in the hands, not of czars, but in those of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for," he said, adding that this meaning is not well understood by modern government officials or at "Georgetown cocktail parties."

"What we got from Lincoln was that reminder. We could use it again today."

Guelzo said myths still pervade remembrances of the address such as the suggestion that Lincoln hastily composed the address on a back of an envelope and that it was not well received.

However, records suggest that Lincoln had a full draft in hand before he boarded the train for Pennsylvania. The three-minute remarks elicited "astonishment and admiration" from the crowd at the dedication and later the American public as a whole, he said.

Lincoln’s speech marked a break from the oratorical conventions of the time both in length and language, exemplified by the "two and a half hour, 1,300-word doozy of an address" by famed orator Edward Everett that preceded it, he added.

Lincoln, an expert raconteur and avid reciter of Shakespeare himself, used rhythmic triplets throughout the address akin to a drumbeat—"we have come"; "that from these honored dead"; "government of the people."

The result was a "middling" form of speech that would be hugely influential, Guelzo said: not too folksy but not too pretentious either.

"It used slang as Lincoln sometimes did to the dismay of the prissy, but it was also rational enough to sustain an argument," he said.

Although 16 presidents have visited the Gettysburg cemetery to commemorate the battle and Lincoln’s words—most recently George W. Bush in 2008—the Gettysburg National Military Park announced Thursday that President Barack Obama will not attend the 150th anniversary dedication. He will be represented by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.

James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian who will be a keynote speaker at the event, told the Associated Press that he was surprised by Obama’s decision. Obama has compared himself to Lincoln and took the oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible.

"I thought he would probably come. He identifies with Lincoln and knows a great deal about him," McPherson said. "It might have been an opportunity for him to say something important, maybe enhance a tarnished image. He's going through a rough patch right now."