An excerpt from the PBS series Looking for Lincoln, in which President Bill Clinton explains the context of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines its content.
Although delivered as a eulogy memorializing Union soldiers killed in the great battle several months earlier, President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was most essentially a piece of political oratory, attempting to steer the Union’s course through a very uncertain future.
Gettysburg had been a costly victory for the North, with over 3,100 Federal soldiers killed and many times that number wounded. It was the bloodiest battle of a war which had already gone on far longer—and at a far higher human toll—than anyone had anticipated. Initial popular enthusiasm had long since cooled, replaced by a sense of collective exhaustion. Lincoln’s institution of a military draft had sparked severe rioting in New York only days after the fighting ended at Gettysburg, and Northern Democrats opposed to the war—known as “Copperheads”—were gaining in popularity. In September 1863, Pennsylvania's Governor A.G. Curtin had warned Lincoln that popular opinion was turning against the war effort:
If the election were to occur now, the result would be extremely doubtful, and although most of our discreet friends are sanguine of the result, my impression is, the chances would be against us. The draft is very odious in the State... the Democratic leaders have succeeded in exciting prejudice and passion, and have infused their poison into the minds of the people to a very large extent, and the changes are against us.
These concerns were much in Lincoln’s mind as he urged his audience “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work” of “the great task remaining before us.” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year had given the war a new moral dimension. No longer was it being fought solely for preservation of a political union; it was now also a crusade of liberation—a larger, higher end which alone could justify the ongoing bloodshed.
In fact, the battle of Gettysburg had been the turning point of the war. Although the Confederate armies were far from beaten, the myth of their invincibility had been forever dispelled, and they had lost the initiative in a war which would increasingly be fought on the coldly calculated terms of the richer, more populous North. The defeat also destroyed Southern hopes of political recognition by Great Britain and other European powers.
Lincoln’s short, modest speech at the site of the war’s bloodiest battle has gone on to define the Civil War itself as the great turning point in American history—the “new birth of freedom” for a nation finally beginning to give political truth to the founding claim that “all men are created equal.”
What does President Bill Clinton mean when he says that Lincoln’s “spirit had been purified in the fires of the slaughter of the civil war?” How does this Lincoln differ from the man who’d been elected President?
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. claims that Lincoln’s great accomplishment in the Gettysburg Address was “to make us believe that liberty and union were inextricably intertwined.” Many Americans at the time—including those in the North—strongly disagreed with that proposition. What do you think?
Lincoln’s plainspoken two-minute address at Gettysburg was preceded by a flowery two hour-long speech from a famous orator, now largely forgotten to history. What qualities do you think go into making a speech great and memorable?
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