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Dedicated to the Great Task: Remembering and Studying Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

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Gettysburg Battlefield. Battle fought at Gettysburg, Pa. July 1st, 2d & 3d 1863
Gettysburg Battlefield. Battle fought at Gettysburg, Pa. July 1st, 2d & 3d 1863

On November 19, 1863, renowned orator Edward Everett spoke at the dedication of a memorial cemetery. The world has little noted nor long remembered what he said in those two hours.

Everett’s oration was upstaged by the next speaker’s concise 272 words, now familiar as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The following day, Everett himself sent Lincoln a note, complimenting him, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

gettysburg-Nicolay copy
“Nicolay Copy,” Gettysburg Address

Lincoln made the most of the brief opportunity to “formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use  by a few appropriate remarks” extended to him a mere 17 days before the event via a letter dated November 2, 1863. (By contrast, Everett had been invited almost two months earlier, in September.) Lincoln’s speech did much more than simply dedicate a national cemetery, however, and so his words continue to resonate 150 years later.

Lincoln & his secretaries, Nicolay & Hay

It was reproduced in newspapers of the day, and the speech has been studied and recited both for its rhetorical strategies and its historical significance, and is listed in the Common Core State Standards as one of the “U.S. documents of historical and literary significance” to be studied.

Of the five copies written in Lincoln’s hand, the one that he eventually gave to his secretary, John Nicolay, is thought to have been drafted before it was delivered at Gettysburg. Others were made after the fact.

To help your students delve into this important historical document:

  • Invite them to look at both pages of the Nicolay draft. What differences do they notice? Ask them to speculate on what might have caused the differences, and why they might be significant.
  • Provide opportunities for them to read the speech aloud to better hear the cadences and phrasing.
  • Assign them to paraphrase the speech, and then compare their word choices to those of another student.

How do your students respond to the Gettysburg Address?



Comments (3)

  1. This blog post would have been more useful and intelligent had it included the text of the Gettysburg Address. Try for a little common sense in the future, eh?

  2. Wonderful post! Another excellent resource is Michael Clay Thompson’s “Lincoln’s Ten Sentences,” a brief but remarkable analysis of The Gettysburg Address suitable for upper elementary, middle and high school students.

  3. To Hiram Legree – The author may have assumed that, in the information age, you could access the text fairly easily (try Googling it, eh?).

    “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.

    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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not 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.”

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