Every American knows of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or at least its opening line: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth…” Lincoln never dreamed that his 272-word speech would be so famous. He assumed, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…” But the world hasn’t forgotten what he said 159 years later. Why is that? And even more importantly, why is the Gettysburg Address still important today?

The Gettysburg Address

The Battle of Gettysburg. (LOC)

The Battle of Gettysburg. (LOC)

On November 18, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The next morning, he participated in the ceremony to honor more than 3,500 U.S. soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettysburg and to consecrate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Around 15,000 people attended the ceremony in the small town of roughly 2,400.

Orator Edward Everett was the real star of the show. “Everett will doubtless bring his matchless rhetorical and oratorical powers into full play in the dedicatory address which he is to deliver,” proclaimed Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer. “It will be a celebration worth any amount of travel and fatigue to see and hear.” Everett did not disappoint: He kept listeners captivated for two hours.

Lincoln, seated next to Everett on the podium, rose and delivered his speech when Everett finished. San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin described Lincoln’s speech as “short, pithy and practical.”

A day after the ceremony, Everett wrote a letter to Lincoln praising his brief, but powerful, speech. “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself,” he wrote, “that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln wrote back, telling Everett, “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”

While Lincoln didn’t think of his speech as iconic, others did. In 1865, Sen. Charles Sumner said Lincoln was mistaken to think that the world would forget what he had said at Gettysburg.

“The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it,” Sumner declared. “The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are always more than battles.”

That idea is that democracy, liberty and freedom are worth fighting for.

Testing Whether We Can Endure

Lincoln is one of the most quotable Americans in history. Pick up a book of popular Lincoln quotes, and you’ll find any of them applicable today. So, it’s not surprising the words in his Gettysburg Address are still pertinent to Americans in 2022.

Gettysburg Address. (LOC)

Gettysburg Address. (LOC)

One sentence particularly stands out. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Lincoln declared, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” While our country is not engaged in a civil war, there’s greater division among Americans than there has been in years.

Lincoln saw the war as a test of devoted Americans were to the nation’s preservation. Americans today are again faced with internal turmoil that threatens to tear the 246-year-old republic apart. The Roman Empire lasted for more than 1,000 years; the Ottoman Empire for more than 600 years. Our democracy is young, and what our founding fathers established is fragile. There’s no guarantee that it will last forever if we don’t protect it.

With a rebellious army at the gates of the U.S. capital, and a string of military defeats the years prior, modern Americans forget how close this country was to collapse in 1863. Lincoln was on his fifth general, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who assumed command of an army only days before the showdown at Gettysburg. The fighting men on both sides understood how important a victory at Gettysburg was. As a result, over 50,000 soldiers became casualties during three-days of fighting in July 1863.

The division in this country threatens to tear apart what our Founding Fathers worked so hard to build, and many fought and died to maintain. We might not realize it, but we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

Many Americans are eager to tell others why their political party or politician is right and the other is wrong. Social media has given people a platform to say terrible things they wouldn’t dare to say to someone’s face. Waging battles on social media does more harm than good. Make a pledge in 2023 to be a kinder, humbler and a more empathetic human being, especially toward those who disagree with you.

The Founding Fathers had vastly different political views. Take for instance the nasty feud between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. President George Washington attempted to act as the arbitrator.

“I would fain hope that liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another,” Washington wrote Hamilton. Without “mutual forbearances, and temporizing yieldings on all sides,” he said, “I do not see how the reins of government are to be managed, or how the union of the states can be much longer preserved.”

Washington understood that Americans need each other, despite their differences, to preserve the Union. And so did President Lincoln. It’s something Americans today don’t fully appreciate. We’re quick to deride those who don’t share our beliefs. Division takes precedence over unity. This nation was built on the foundation of tolerating people’s differences. Look no further than the Declaration of Independence as evidence.

Let these lines from founding father John Dickinson’s 1768 song sink in: “Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all! By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.” We’re all Americans, and we need each other if this country is going to be around for another 250 years. Lincoln understood this more than a century ago, and we need to too.

You can listen to actor Stephen Lang recite the Gettysburg Address at the 2021 Remembrance Day ceremony here.

Further Reading

“Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg.” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), November 9, 1863.

“‘Gettysburg’ Celebration.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), November 20, 1863.

Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works, Comprising His Speeches, Letters, State Papers, and Miscellaneous Writings. Vol. 2. Edited by John G. Nicolay and John Hay. New York: The Century Co., 1894.

Marshall, John. The Life of George Washington. Vol. 5. London: Printed for Richard Phillips, 1807.

“President Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg.” Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, CA), December 18, 1863.

Sumner, Charles. The Promises of the Declaration of Independence: Eulogy on Abraham Lincoln, Delivered before the Municipal Authorities of the City of Boston, June 1, 1865. Boston: J.E. Farwell & Co., 1865.