The Gettysburg Address

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It is one of the most important, and most beautiful, speeches ever given in the English language. I'm Steve Ember with Bob Doughty.

President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is our report this week on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

We begin in the summer of eighteen-sixty-three in Gettysburg, a little town in the state of Pennsylvania. Gettysburg was a small farming and market town back then.

On July first, second and third, two huge armies clashed in Gettysburg. They fought in one of the most important battles of the American Civil War. Because of that battle, the little market town of Gettysburg became an extremely important part of American history.

General Robert E. Lee led the Southern army of the Confederate states into Pennsylvania. He went into the North in hopes of winning a major victory -- a victory that might help the Confederate cause.

Southern states, where slavery was legal, were trying to form their own country. They wanted the right to govern themselves. Northern states did not want to let them leave the Union.

General George Gordon Mead's Union Army was following the Confederates. The two armies met at Gettysburg in the fierce heat of summer in July of eighteen-sixty-three.

Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Devil's Den, Pickett's Charge. American history books are filled with the names of places in and around Gettysburg where the soldiers fought.

These are places where thousands of men died defending the idea of a United States of America.

General Lee and the Confederate Army lost the great battle. They were forced to return to the South. Many more battles would be fought during the Civil War. Some were just as terrible as the one at Gettysburg. Yet few are remembered so well.

Gettysburg was the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent. And it was the subject of a speech given five months later by the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

On November second of eighteen-sixty-three, David Wills of Gettysburg wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln. In the letter, Wills explained that the bodies of soldiers killed in the great battle had been moved to a special area and buried.

He invited President Lincoln to attend ceremonies to honor the soldiers who had died defending the Union. Wills also explained that the main speaker that day would be Mr. Edward Everett. He was the most famous speaker in the United States at that time.

President Lincoln accepted the invitation. History experts say he may have done this for several reasons. President Lincoln may have decided that it was a good time to honor all those who had given their lives in the Civil War. He may also have seen the ceremony as a chance to say how important the war was. To him, it was important not just to save the union of states, but also to establish freedom and equality under the law.

President Lincoln worked on the speech for some time. He wrote it himself, on White House paper. He arrived in Gettysburg by train the day before the ceremony. David Wills had invited the president to stay the night in his home.

President Lincoln, Edward Everett and David Wills left the house for the new burial place the next morning. For a few moments, let us imagine that this is November nineteenth, eighteen-sixty-three. The weather is cool. There are clouds in the sky.

It is almost noon. We have arrived at the new Gettysburg cemetery. Fifteen-thousand people have come to hear Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln.

For almost two hours, President Lincoln has been listening to the speech by Edward Everett. The great speaker's voice is powerful. He speaks of ancient burial ceremonies. He tells how the young soldiers who had died here should be honored. At last, Everett finishes.

Moments later a man stands and announces: "Ladies and gentlemen, his excellency -- the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln."

The president leaves his chair and walks slowly forward. The huge crowd becomes silent. Abraham Lincoln begins to speak. Listen now to the words read by Shep O'Neal.


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 battlefield 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.

Political opponents of Abraham Lincoln immediately criticized the speech. But there was nothing unusual about that. Edward Everett, the great speaker, knew the critics were wrong. He knew he had heard a speech that expressed difficult thoughts and ideas clearly and simply.

Everett also recognized the power and the beauty of Lincoln's words. Later he wrote to the president. He said Lincoln had said in two minutes what he had tried to say in two hours.

Newspapers throughout the United States quickly printed the presidential speech again and again.

Edward Everett asked President Lincoln if he could have a copy of the speech. The president wrote a copy and sent it to him. The Everett copy is one of five known copies that Lincoln wrote by hand.

Today, two of those copies belong to the Library of Congress. One of them may be the copy that President Lincoln used when he gave the speech in Gettysburg.

President Lincoln also made a copy for a soldier named Colonel Alexander Bliss. This copy hangs on a wall in the White House in the bedroom that was used by President Lincoln.

The copy that Lincoln sent to Edward Everett is in the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield.

A historian named George Bancroft also asked the president for a copy. That document now belongs to Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York.

President Lincoln wrote all five of these documents. The meaning of the speech is the same in each. However, some words are different. The version with the words most often used is the one made for Colonel Bliss that hangs in the White House.

The speech is also carved into the stone walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D-C. Almost everyone who visits the memorial stands before the huge statue of Abraham Lincoln and reads the speech.

Several years ago, the Library of Congress began a project to translate President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address into other languages.

Versions in twenty-nine languages are on the Internet. These include Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Slovak, Spanish and Turkish.

The address of the Web site is www.loc.gov. That is the the Library of Congress. Click on "Exhibitions," then go down to the link for the Gettysburg Address.

There is also a link from the Special English Web site: www.voaspecialenglish.com.

Our program was written by Paul Thompson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.