The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s undying call for a “new birth of freedom” at the bloody turning point of the US Civil War, turned 150 years old Tuesday, even as the union he fought to preserve quarrels bitterly over the role of government.
Thousands of people bundled up against the autumn chill — some in Civil War era uniform — crowded into the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered the 272 words that became one of the most revered speeches in US history.
“This is a dream come true for me,” said Walter Whitten, a retired African American veteran who traveled from Hawaii with his wife Debra for the ceremony. “This is something I waited many, many years for.”
Not far from the simple head stones marking the graves of soldiers who fell in the battle of Gettysburg, tourists, Civil War buffs, members of Congress, a Supreme Court justice and other dignitaries listened to speeches, hymns, prayers and a re-enactment of Lincoln’s restrained, eloquent remarks on an emancipated America.
The crowd burst into cheers and applause when 21 new US citizens were sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Embroiled in a fight to save his signature health reform, Barack Obama, the country’s first African American president, stayed away from the ceremony but a taped message from him was played to the new citizens.
Of course, the true star of the day was Lincoln.
In his speech, which lasted a little more than two minutes, he succeeded in re-centering the American project on the values of freedom, equality and democracy, less than a year after the emancipation of the slaves.
He pledged 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.”
Lincoln delivered the address on November 19, 1863, more than four months after the Union and Confederate armies clashed in Gettysburg, a market town in rural Pennsylvania of little strategic importance.
After three days of fighting, more than 50,000 soldiers on both sides were dead, wounded or missing. Confederate General Robert E. Lee escaped with the remnants of his army, his bold gamble on an invasion of the North undone and his cause all but finished.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” Lincoln said of the Union dead.
The speech was so short, it was over before many of the dignitaries crowding the stage with Lincoln realized it had begun.
“The people standing there were thinking, ‘this can’t be it, can it?’” said Joseph Reidy, a historian at Howard University in Washington.
By the next day, versions of the speech appeared in the major northern newspapers, and commentators hailed it as a work of genius, Reidy said.
Today, the speech is memorized by schoolchildren and savored by historians for its classical allusions and subtlety.
Retired air force lieutenant William Szych said he remembered thinking about it as he flew home from Iraq on a military transport plane with caskets containing the remains of seven soldiers.
“That speech goes through your mind, over and over,” he recalled. “Why are these young men dying to this day? What is this sacrifice?”
How much water it still holds with America’s political elites is another matter.
Brian Hagen, who teaches business management at a community college in Baltimore, said he was troubled by the country’s current malaise.
“Like it was 150 years ago, there are two distinct sides at this point in the country, neither one of which seems to be willing to reach out to the other,” he said. “Most people see this country is as politically divided as it has ever been.”
Lincoln went to Soldiers’ National Cemetery with an exacting brief: eulogize the dead, recommit the country to the war and prepare it to build a more expansive democracy with African Americans as equals.
His dedicatory “remarks” were added to the program almost as an afterthought, with top billing going to Edward Everett, a former secretary of state who was famous for his battlefield orations.