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Gettysburg Address, 150 years later, is a sacred, but elusive text

  • 705217aec1f75f26430f6a706700d08d.jpg

    This 1905 artist's rendering from the Sherwood Lithograph Co. via the Library of Congress depicts President Abraham Lincoln speaking at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. The Gettysburg Address is unusual among great American speeches, in part because the occasion did not call for a great American speech. Lincoln was not giving an inaugural address, a commencement speech or remarks in the immediate aftermath of a shocking national tragedy. "No one was looking for him to make history," says the Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson. (AP Photo/Sherwood Lithograph Co. via the Library of Congress) (The Associated Press)

  • 25acf10dc1f85f26430f6a706700de69.jpg

    This Nov. 19, 1863 photo made available by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln, center with no hat, surrounded by the crowd at the dedication of a portion of the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa. as a national cemetery. The Gettysburg Address is unusual among great American speeches, in part because the occasion did not call for a great American speech. Lincoln was not giving an inaugural address, a commencement speech or remarks in the immediate aftermath of a shocking national tragedy. "No one was looking for him to make history," says the Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson. (AP Photo/Library of Congress, Alexander Gardner) (The Associated Press)

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    In this July 1913 photo made available by the Library of Congress, President Woodrow Wilson, third from right, attends a commemoration for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. After Abraham Lincoln, the first major presidential address at Gettysburg was given at this event by Wilson, who privately ranked Lincoln's speech as "very, very high," and offered a vague tribute to national unity that disappointed admirers of a man whose speechmaking had enabled his quick rise from Princeton president to the White House. According to a new biography by A. Scott Berg, Wilson was a reluctant guest of honor. He initially turned down an invitation and gave in only after being warned that the Virginia-born president would be perceived as hostile to a gathering attended by veterans from both sides. (AP Photo/Library of Congress) (The Associated Press)

  • 73ccd5fbc1f85f26430f6a7067008289.jpg

    This undated image made available by the Library of Congress shows part of the "Nicolay Copy" version of the five known drafts of President Abraham Lincoln's Nov. 19, 1863 speech in Gettysburg, Pa. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was given at the dedication of a memorial cemetery at the battlefield site. (AP Photo/Library of Congress) (The Associated Press)

The Gettysburg Address is as sacred an American text as "The Star-Spangled Banner." But as immediately recognizable as some of its words are, others are more elusive.

There exists no definitive edition of the speech Abraham Lincoln gave to dedicate a cemetery at the Civil War battlefield. Scholars still debate the speech's exact length, usually ranging from 268 to 272 words.

Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's famous remarks. Like many of Lincoln's successor, President Barack Obama will not attend the anniversary gathering.

Lincoln historian Harold Holzer says the only explanation for why acclaimed orators like Obama and Bill Clinton would skip the anniversaries is the high bar Lincoln set.

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