November 19, 1863
As President, Abraham Lincoln had been invited to speak at the dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which would be the final resting place for soldiers who had died in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Before he spoke, keynote speaker Edward Everett provided the crowd with a moving but lengthy speech on the historical causes and moral consequences of the war. When his turn came, Lincoln rose and in a mere 272 words revealed with poetic brevity the importance of the proposition “all men are created equal” to America’s past, present and future. Generations of Americans and people around the world have since found inspiration in this eloquent, noble and universal appeal to and defense of the cause of liberty.
Questions for consideration: Why does Lincoln call the idea that “all men are created equal” a “proposition,” rather than a self-evident truth as in the Declaration of Independence? What will be proven by the outcome of the Civil War? What is the great task still remaining before Americans?
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.
Source: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, volume 7 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1953), 22-23.Core Document