The great task remaining: Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address

The Great Emancipator distilled our national purpose into 272 words

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On Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln came to Pennsylvania to dedicate a cemetery. The place was Gettysburg, four months earlier the scene of the greatest battle ever fought in the Americas. The carnage — including 54,000 Americans killed or wounded — on July 1-3 had been on a scale previously unimagined, and now the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the federal government worked together to set aside a portion of the battlefield adjoining the town’s Evergreen Cemetery as a permanent “Soldiers Cemetery.”

Edward Everett, successor to Daniel Webster as the nation’s favorite orator, had been the logical choice to deliver the keynote address at the dedication. Recounting the battle, seemingly blow-by-blow in often gory detail and florid rhetoric excoriating rebel foemen, he did not disappoint the eager crowd estimated at nearly 20,000.

David Wills, appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin to run the dedication event, invited Lincoln as part of a general call for participation by federal officials. No one, it seems, really expected the president to take the time to travel the 80 miles, by overloaded and notoriously unreliable railroads, from Washington to Gettysburg.

But less than three weeks before the appointed day, Lincoln casually told a correspondent that he intended to make an appearance and deliver a few appropriate remarks. Wills had just enough time to change the printed program — following Everett’s “Oration,” the president would make “Dedicatory Remarks.”

John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary and confidant, later revealed that the president hoped while there to mend political fences within Pennsylvania’s fractured Republican party — the enmity between Gov. Curtin and Simon Cameron, Hay remembered, was especially vicious, and he wondered at “the intimate, jovial relations that exist between men that hate and despise each other as cordially as do these Pennsylvania politicians.”

But when Lincoln rose to speak, he rose above petty politics, focused on the task at hand and the even greater task remaining before his fractured nation. What did he think about as he sat respectfully hatless with other dignitaries on the speakers’ platform as Everett riveted the standing crowd for more than two hours? Perhaps he was caught up in Everett’s reprisal of the battle.

Lincoln’s thoughts may have drifted to his own loss — the stovepipe hat under his seat still bore the black mourning band he wore for his own 11-year-old son, Willie, who had died of a fever the year before.

Maybe Lincoln was concentrating on not throwing up on anyone important — he confided to Hay at the beginning of his journey to Gettysburg that he was dizzy and feeling ill, evidently suffering from a mild case of small pox.

Somehow he rallied and, taking his 272-word “remarks” from his hat, he unfolded his lanky 6-foor, 4-inch frame, stood, and delivered the most remembered and best-loved speech ever uttered by an American president. Interrupted five times by applause, it took him just under three minutes to read the Gettysburg Address.

While political opponents scoffed at the president’s brief dedication, those present — including Everett — realized they had witnessed something extraordinary. Lincoln’s speech succinctly expressed the deeper meaning and purpose of the war.

Lincoln had recognized that the conflict over slavery was evident even in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence first attempted to unify the colonies four score and seven years earlier. The fundamental belief that “all men are created equal” had gnawed at the morally divided nation. The Emancipation Proclamation enacted on Jan. 1, 1863, had been the first step in righting the great injustice of slavery, and Lincoln realized that much remained to be done, not just for the sake of the 4 million descendants of enslaved Africans residing in America but for the nation of, by and for the people that aspired to be the world’s model democratic republic.

Lincoln’s address helped give meaning to the terrible sacrifice of the Civil War and challenges us, the living, never to forget and to dedicate ourselves to the “great task remaining before us.”

Andrew E. Masich is chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center.


The Gettysburg Address

As delivered 150 years ago today, on Nov. 19, 1863

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. [Applause]

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. [Applause] The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. [Applause] It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. [Applause] It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain, [Applause] that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom — and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth. [Long continued applause]

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