Lincoln’s Gettysburg words still echo, 150 years on

Thousands gathered at Gettysburg yesterday to commemorate the acclaimed speech

Portraying former US president Abraham Lincoln, James Getty recites the Gettysburg Address during a commemoration of its  150th anniversary at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania yesterday. Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Portraying former US president Abraham Lincoln, James Getty recites the Gettysburg Address during a commemoration of its 150th anniversary at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania yesterday. Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Wed, Nov 20, 2013, 01:00


When Abraham Lincoln delivered his acclaimed Gettysburg address 150 years ago yesterday, many at the scene of the famous civil war battle missed much of his two-minute speech.

The crowd was shuffling around and recovering from a preceding two-hour speech by former senator Edward Everett when Lincoln began his 272-word oration, referring to the founding fathers and how the nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

‘New birth of freedom’
Now one of the most famous US political speeches, Lincoln’s address – a rallying call for “a new birth of freedom” and “a government of the people, by the people, for the people” – is a staple of American classrooms that schoolchildren can recite by heart.

Thousands gathered at Gettysburg yesterday to commemorate the speech a week after a local newspaper, The Patriot-News, retracted and apologised for an editorial published 150 years ago that criticised the speech.

While the US civil war began in April 1861 to save the union, by the time Lincoln took the podium in the small Pennsylvania town on November 19th, 1863 he was attempting to win over the hearts and minds of a sceptical northern public that the war had to end slavery in order for the union to prevail.

Lincoln was dedicating a cemetery to 51,000 soldiers killed at a battle four months earlier that began by accident after Confederate army general Robert Lee marched to the town to find shoes for his men.

Almost as many Americans were killed, wounded or went missing at Gettysburg as in Vietnam. The battle marked a turning point in the bloody civil war, ending the supremacy of the Confederate South.

Joseph Reidy, professor of history at Howard University in Washington DC, said the vision of equality for all in Lincoln’s address “remains a work in progress” given the disparities in US society. “It’s a destination toward which the United States and arguably much of humanity is still proceeding, still in transit,” he said.

Lincoln was grappling with what equal rights for African-Americans would mean in his newly free nation when he was assassinated 18 months later, said Reidy.“Arguably, the nation has been struggling with that question ever since.”