Speech: Lincoln

(Delivered by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863)

Background of Lincoln's most famous and shortest speech

Of the five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address, the Library of Congress has two. 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.

Considerable scholarly debate continues about whether the Nicolay copy is the "reading" copy. In 1894 Nicolay wrote that Lincoln had brought with him the first part of the speech, written in ink on Executive Mansion stationery, and that he had written the second page in pencil on lined paper before the dedication on November 19, 1863. Matching folds are still evident on the two pages shown here, suggesting it could be the copy that eyewitnesses say Lincoln took from his coat pocket and read at the ceremony.

However, one of the arguments supporting the contrary theory that the delivery text has been lost is that some of the words and phrases of the Nicolay copy do not match contemporaneous accounts. The words "under God," for example, are missing from the phrase "that this nation [under God] shall have a new birth of freedom...." In order for the Nicolay draft to have been the reading copy, Lincoln uncharacteristically would have had to depart from his written text in several instances. This copy of the Gettysburg Address remained in John Nicolay's possession until his death in 1901, when it passed to his friend and colleague John Hay.

The "second draft," probably made by Lincoln shortly after his return to Washington from Gettysburg, was given to John Hay, whose descendants donated both it and the Nicolay copy to the Library of Congress in 1916. There are numerous variations in words and punctuation between these two drafts. Because these variations provide clues into Lincoln's thinking and because these two drafts are the most closely tied to November 19, they continue to be consulted by scholars of the period.

The other three copies of the Address were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after November 19. The copy for Edward Everett, the orator who spoke at Gettysburg for two hours prior to Lincoln, is at the Illinois State Historical Library at Springfield; the Bancroft copy, requested by historian George Bancroft, is at Cornell University; the Bliss copy was made for Colonel Alexander Bliss, Bancroft's stepson, and is now in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

The program organized for that day at Gettysburg by the official committee included:

Music, by Birgfield's Band

Prayer, by Reverend T.H. Stockton, D.D.

Music, by the Marine Band

Oration, by Hon. Edward Everett

Music, Hymn composed by B.B. French, Esq.

Dedicatory Remarks, by the President of the United States

Dirge, sung by Choir selected for the occasion

Benediction, by Reverend H.L. Baugher, D.D.

Main speech was delivered by Edward Everett, not by Abraham Lincoln

What was regarded as the "Gettysburg Address" that day was not the short speech delivered by President Lincoln, but rather Everett's two-hour oration. Everett's now-seldom-read 13,609-word speech began: "Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy."

And ended two hours later with:

"But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates The Battles of Gettysburg."

Not long after those well-received remarks, President Lincoln spoke in his high-pitched Kentucky accent for two or three minutes. Lincoln's "few appropriate remarks" summarized the war in ten sentences and 272 words, rededicating the nation to the war effort and to the ideal that no soldier at Gettysburg— Federal or Confederate—had died in vain.

Despite the historical significance of Lincoln's speech, modern scholars disagree as to its exact wording, and contemporary transcriptions published in newspaper accounts of the event and even handwritten copies by Lincoln himself differ in their wording, punctuation, and structure. Of these versions the "Bliss Copy" has become the standard text. It is the only version to which Lincoln affixed his signature, and the last he is known to have written.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

    Fourscore 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 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.

—Compiled from "Lincoln Speaks at Gettysburg";
from Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years;
One-Volume Edition, by Carl Sandburg; Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.;
1954; pages 226-231.