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A Brief Overview of the Gettysburg Address
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history. His brief, yet powerful, Gettysburg Address described the United States as being at a pivotal crossroads. The United States, Lincoln said, would either fall apart or continue on as a stronger and more truly free nation.
In the mid-1800s, the northern states, which did not allow slavery, and the southern states, which did, were headed to a crisis over whether the national government should be allowed to prohibit slavery in territories. Territories were part of the United States, but not yet states.
By the time Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860, the United States was in danger of breaking apart. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Many southern states soon followed and formed the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861. Two years later, the country was in the middle of the American Civil War. The war claimed approximately 620,000 lives, which was two percent of the American population at the time.
President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle, which occurred in early July of that year, resulted in approximately 51,000 casualties.
Lincoln was the second to speak at a dedication ceremony for a cemetery for the soldiers killed in the battle. Edward Everett, a well-known American orator and former vice-presidential candidate, spoke first, for approximately two hours. President Lincoln followed him with less than 300 words. In his speech, Lincoln stressed the importance of honoring the human sacrifices that had been made. He declared, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.”
The Civil War continued until the spring of 1865 when the North won the war. Throughout 1864 and 1865, President Lincoln worked with the Senate and the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which declared that slavery and involuntary servitude were no longer allowed in the United States and gave Congress the power to enforce this law. The Senate passed the amendment in April of 1864, and the House approved it in January of 1865, but the states’ ratification process was not over at the time of Lincoln’s death on April 14, 1865. The new president, Andrew Johnson, oversaw the last of the ratifications and the official adoption of the 13th Amendment into the United States Constitution on December 6th, 1865.
The Gettysburg Address remains a powerful statement on human equality, sacrifice, and the idea of the United States as a “nation conceived in liberty.”