On November 19, 1863, Edward Everett, perhaps the greatest orator in America in his time stood before a crowd of 15,000 people and wowed them with a two-hour speech. When he finished, the crowd gave him a rousing round of applause. The next speaker moved to the podium and gave a speech that lasted for just over two minutes. The crowd, un-used to a speech so short gave him an uncertain but polite round of applause. The speaker returned to his seat and said to the man next to him, “That speech won’t scour.” But Everett knew better. He later said to the second speaker, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came so near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
The occasion was the dedication of the cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The second speaker was President Abraham Lincoln. He had been invited to speak at Gettysburg as an afterthought, invited to say “a few appropriate remarks.” The Gettysburg address was not Lincoln’s best speech, in my opinion. That would be his Second Inaugural Address, given On March 3, 1865. But it is his most famous speech. It is the speech Mrs. Helen Mueller made all us fifth graders memorize.
In the Gettysburg address, Lincoln proposed a change to the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, of at least to the Preamble. The Preamble to the Constitution starts out, “We the People….” To the Founders “The People” meant a small and exclusive group. White men over the age of 21 who owned property worth a certain value, depending on which state one lived in. Poor people were disenfranchised, as were women, Blacks, and Native Americans. In one state, Maryland, there was a religious test. No Jew could cast a ballot. The religious tests in other states that had barred Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and atheists from voting were abandoned after the Constitution went into effect in 1789.
The Civil War, at least as far as Lincoln was concerned, started out as an effort to preserve the Union. But by late 1863, He had warmed to the idea of making the war about abolishing slavery as well. He has signed The Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the Confederacy, on January 1, 1863. At the time of the Gettysburg address he was considering an amendment banning slavery. In the address, the lines “all men are created equal” and “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” were the opening salvo of the fight that was to come over abolition. Any intelligent person, reading between the lines, understood that Lincoln’s definition of “people,” which had been broadened to include the working-class decades before, was broadened further to include Blacks. In 57 years it would be broadened again to include women.
I am going to suggest you take a couple minutes this weekend and read The Gettysburg Address. Better yet, rent or watch on PBS Ken Burns documentary entitled “The Address.” It’s not what you think. It’s about this school in Vermont that specializes in teaching boys with learning disabilities. Part of the curriculum is that the boys are given a chance to win a special coin and are honored with a special banquet and a trip to Gettysburg, if they can memorize The Gettysburg Address. Don’t blow this off. It is a truly amazing documentary. I tear up every time I watch it.