On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg. When the battered armies limped out of Pennsylvania after July’s brutal fight, they left behind them more than seven thousand corpses in a town with fewer than 2500 inhabitants. With the heat of a summer sun beating down, getting the dead soldiers into the ground quickly was imperative. A local lawyer urged Washington to establish a national cemetery in the town, where the soldiers could be interred with dignity. Officials agreed, and the lawyer planned an elaborate dedication ceremony. The organizers invited state governors, members of Congress, and cabinet members to attend. They asked prominent orator Edward Everett to deliver the keynote address. And, almost as an afterthought, they asked President Lincoln to make a few remarks. While they probably thought he would not attend, or that if he came he would simply mouth a few platitudes and sit down, President Lincoln had something different in mind.
About fifteen thousand people gathered in Gettysburg for the ceremony. A program of music and prayers preceded Everett’s two-hour oration. Then, after another hymn, Lincoln got up to speak. Packed in the midst of a sea of frock coats, he began. In his high-pitched voice, he delivered a two-minute speech that redefined the nation.
President Lincoln reminded the American people what they were fighting for. He transformed into poetry the nation’s founding principles. While slave owners stood firm on the Constitution’s protection of property – including their slaves – Lincoln insisted that American stood for equality before the law. Dating the nation from the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, he insisted that America was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln’s argument was about far more than race. In his youth, Lincoln and his friends, poor men all, had seen fabulously wealthy slaveholders gain control over the government. They had shaped legislation that permitted them to make more and more money, and which took away opportunities for men just starting out. Increasingly, wealthy men insisted that their economic system, which had enabled them to amass fortunes previously unimaginable, was the right one, for most men were dull drudges who must be led by their betters. There was no point in letting them have the tools to rise, for giving them opportunities would only divert the resources rich men would use better. When slave owners overturned longstanding laws to enable them to move their economic system into the West, Lincoln believed the very fate of the nation was at stake. “We are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether… any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
In the late 1850s, Lincoln quit his law practice and threw his lot with the Republicans, a new political party that promised to keep the American government from falling under the control of rich men. Regular people must control the government, he thought, for only they would guarantee that laws would continue to enable every man to rise. Nothing was more important, the president told his listeners at Gettysburg, than continuing to fight so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Most northerners blessed Lincoln’s speech, but opponents howled at the idea that America stood for equality. Surely “the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes, and persons of African blood,” were not equal to white people, Lincoln’s own vice-president would later rant. Others echoed the slave owners who warned that, unless the rich controlled government, it would confiscate wealth. Poor men would want tax dollars used for schools and hospitals, and the bulk of tax money would come from wealthier members of society.
Nonetheless, Lincoln’s position was clear. “We can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground,” he noted. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” For Lincoln, the lesson of Gettysburg was for those left behind. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
Why does the Gettysburg Address still matter? With it, President Lincoln rededicated the nation to the principle of human equality, and to a government that reflected that equality by advancing the economic interests of all Americans.
This article originally appeared on The Historical Society blog.