What Was the Gettysburg Address About & What Is the Meaning Behind the Words?

President Abraham Lincoln delivered the short Gettysburg address, considered by many the best presidential speech in American history.
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To prevail in the Civil War and prevent the South from becoming an independent nation, the north had to successfully invade and completely defeat southern rebels. The South needed to convince the North that such an invasion could not succeed -- and that the effort would create much needless suffering. Had the South succeeded at the Battle of Gettysburg, fought in a northern Pennsylvania city in July of 1863, much of the war would have been fought on northern soil. That could have empowered northern peace movements and virtually ensured the South an ultimate victory. President Abraham Lincoln's remarks at the dedication of the cemetery honoring victorious northern soldiers came to be recognized as one of America's great speeches.

1 For the Ages

Lincoln was not the main speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. He was called on to make brief remarks at the close of the ceremony. Rather than dwell on the battle, itself, and the war, he decided to put the war into a larger context. He let it flow from quotations from the Declaration of Independence, then defined the war as a struggle over whether a free self-governing people can survive at all in the long term. Many critics at first dismissed it as a silly effort unworthy of the occasion, little knowing that their attacks would come to be an indictment of their own lack of vision rather than of Lincoln.

2 Conceived in Liberty

Lincoln begins his speech by acknowledging the unique nature of America's founding, "Four score and seven years ago..." A score is an old term for 20, thus four score and seven years means 87 years. At the time of the American founding, it was almost universally agreed that a democracy was one of the most volatile forms of government possible. Most experiments with it degenerated into chaos and war within a decade or two, followed by the rise of a dictator to restore order. Lincoln acknowledged the experimental nature of the American project, noting that it was uniquely, "...dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

3 Battlefield of Liberty

As he begins his second paragraph, Lincoln acknowledges that European critics of democracies might have a point. Reflecting on the terrible battle that had engulfed America on the field of Gettysburg and beyond, he wonders sorrowfully whether Americans had solved the problem of democratic instability or merely delayed its onset. He states the question plainly as to whether any nation founded on American principles could "...long endure." His answer is that the question is unresolved, but that the soldiers who had died at Gettysburg fought for more than a field: they fought for the very principle of self-government and liberty. The final outcome of that war would determine whether such self-government was possible.

4 A New Birth of Freedom

In his final words, Lincoln calls for "...a new birth of freedom." He describes the soldiers' buried there as having died for that principle. Then he urges his listeners to honor the dead by committing themselves to the same principle, so that America's system of government, run by the people themselves, making liberty possible, "...shall not perish from the earth." Lincoln grounded the speech in language from the Declaration of Independence, then used his brief words to transform the war from a squabble between sections of a young nation into a transcendent crusade for liberty, itself.

Joe McElroy has been writing on politics and culture since 1983. His articles have appeared in a diverse array of publications, including the "Chicago Daily Observer" and "Immaculata" magazine. McElroy works occasionally as a strategic consultant to federal candidates. He majored in American history at Northwestern University.