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Gettysburg Address - November 19, 1863

Perhaps no speech in American history has been more revered than this short message by Lincoln on the occasion of the dedication of a cemetery in the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin asked David Wills of Gettysburg to oversee the cleanup of the battle's aftermath. All across the battlefield lay the bodies of soldiers from both armies, bloating and rotting in the summer heat. Rather than simply hastily burying the dead where they lay, Wills acquired 17 acres of land for a national cemetery so that permanent resting places would be available.

Germantown landscape architect William Saunders drew up the plans for the cemetery, and burial began not long after. On September 23, wishing to formally dedicate the cemetery, Wills invited the highly respected Edward Everett to give a speech. The date selected was October 23, but Everett asked for additional time to prepare. The ceremony was then set for November 19.

On November 2, 1863, almost as an afterthought, Wills invited President Lincoln to also make a "few appropriate remarks." (There is speculation that Lincoln was actually asked informally about a month earlier).

Lincoln accepted the invitation, and gave a speech that lasted only a few minutes, as opposed to Everett's two-hour oration. Everett's speech has long been forgotten, while Lincoln's remarks have become arguably the most famous words ever spoken in this country's history.

Lincoln's Invitation

Of the five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address, two are held by the Library of Congress. President Lincoln gave one of these to each of his two private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The copy on exhibit, which belonged to Nicolay, is often called the "first draft" because it is believed to be the earliest copy that exists. The "second draft" was given to John Hay. His descendants donated both it and the Nicolay copy to the Library of Congress in 1916.

The other three copies were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after November 19. One copy was given to the other speaker that day, Edward Everett. It is housed at the Illinois State Historical Library at Springfield. A copy given to historian George Bancroft is at Cornell University. A fifth copy was made for Bancroft's stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss. This is the copy presently kept in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

Interest in the Gettysburg Address is not confined to the United States. So many people from around the world have shown an interest in it that the Library of Congress has translated it into 29 different languages. To read any of those translations, click here.

This photograph (above, left) is believed to be the only photo taken of Lincoln at the dedication.  The photo was taken of the crowd around the platform. A detail (above, right) from that picture of President Lincoln on the platform was made from the original glass plate negative at the National Archives, and the plate lay undisturbed in the Archives for nearly fifty-five years. Finally, in 1952, an official at the National Archives recognized Lincoln in the center of the detail. His hat is off and he appears to be seated. To the immediate left (Lincoln's right) is his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, and to the far right (beyond the limits of the detail) is Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania. (photos courtesy of the National Archives).

Here are Lincoln's famous words:

Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field 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 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. 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. 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 gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln's Best Known Speeches