GETTYSBURG PENNSYLVANIA – The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s undying call for a “new birth of freedom” at the bloody turning point of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 headstones 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 U.S. 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.
Later Tuesday, the White House released the text of an essay handwritten by Obama for the Lincoln Presidential Library, in which he reflected on the momentous nature of his political hero’s speech.
“Lincoln’s words give us confidence that whatever trials await us, this nation and the freedom we cherish can, and shall, prevail,” Obama wrote in the essay.
But 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 Nov. 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 Gen. 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.