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.”
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.
It was reproduced in newspapers of the day, and in commemorative items for years after. 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To help your students delve into this important historical document: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?