Lincoln at Gettysburg -- a reverence for the Declaration of Independence

Abraham Lincoln, shortly after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, remarked in a letter to a friend that it was the "central act of my administration," and boldly posited that it would be remembered as the "great event of the nineteenth century."

He had not yet written the Gettysburg Address.

One could see his point of view: with the stroke of the pen, Lincoln's Proclamation had freed more slaves - approximately 4 million - than in all recorded history.

But for all its boldness, the Proclamation itself was a terse, legally worded and narrow document.  It merely freed those slaves under Confederate control - border state slaves remained in bondage.  And absent from it was any soaring rhetoric, a signature of Lincoln's prose.

Emancipation, for Lincoln, was little more than a tactic of war - a chance to interrupt the Southern economy, breathe new life into a bogged-down campaign, placate the radical Republicans and hopefully inspire new Northern conscripts.  It wasn't a cause that ran "marrow deep" for the man who would become known as the Great Emancipator.


It has been speculated that one of the reasons for Abraham Lincoln's enduring popularity with the American people is that his views about freedom and slavery evolved over time.  He grew in the office -- something extremely rare in the presidency.

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on November 19th, nowhere is that evolution more evident than the 272 words he spoke on that crisp autumn day overlooking the most important battlefield of the war.

Contrary to popular myth, Lincoln did not pen the speech on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg the day before.

Quite the opposite, he began putting words on paper as soon as he accepted the invitation from the ceremony organizers to give a "few appropriate remarks" as part of the dedication proceedings.  Amazingly, Lincoln wasn't even the featured speaker that day.  That honor fell to former Secretary of State Edward Everett, widely regarding as the finest orator of the day.

But in a sense, Lincoln had begun thinking about the central theme of the speech shortly after the Union emerged victorious at Gettysburg in early July, 1863.

Responding to serenaders who had gathered outside the White House on the evening of July 7th to celebrate the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln foreshadowed his famous address – and in the process offered a rare glimpse into his evolving thinking.

"How long ago is it -- eighty odd years," he rhetorically asked the revelers, "since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation, by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal'."  He concluded his impromptu remarks that night by noting that "on the 4th, the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal, 'turned tail' and ran."

The crowd outside the White House couldn't have understood the significance of Lincoln's words - in particular the usage of the phrase "all men are created equal."

Lincoln revered the Declaration of Independence. He considered it, not the Constitution, as the founding document of the United States.

But it troubled him deeply that the Declaration's central and lasting tenet - "that all men are created equal" - was, in a sense, hollow.  As a young man he had witnessed scores of slaves, badly scarred from savage beatings, shackled together for transport and auction.  It was an indelible moment - he would refer to it again and again in his public and private remarks over the years - and it marked the beginning of his lifelong struggle to reconcile the brutal institution of slavery with the noble words of equality in his cherished Declaration.

Lincoln, however, was a practical politician – not a crusader.  For most of his presidency, he had subordinated the notion of freedom and equality to, in his estimation, the larger cause of preserving the Union. Writing to Horace Greeley in August of 1862, he reminded the newspaper publisher that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.”

He was so steadfast, in fact, in the belief that the war was about Union, and nothing more, that Lincoln had banished the phrase "all men are created equal" from his public utterances as president.  He feared that phrase would be interpreted as equating the war with the cause of freedom and equality rather than union or disunion.  It was the last thing he wanted to do.

In the days following Gettysburg and the months leading up to the speech he began to see things differently.

The battle at Gettysburg wasn't just a tactical turning point in the war - it was an emotional one as well.  Hearing tales of the bravery and sacrifice that took place during the three-day campaign moved Lincoln deeply.  And it's what prompted him to link the Union victory to the Declaration's noble five words in the days following the epic battle.

Abraham Lincoln was prepared to make the war about more than Union and disunion as he took to the podium following Edward Everett's two-hour oration.

For that reason, he had invited his entire cabinet to escort him Gettysburg - all but two made the trip - to witness the dedication ceremony.

The evening before the speech Lincoln toiled alone for an hour in the home of local attorney David Wills, the event organizer, refining his "few appropriate" remarks.  He would further sharpen his words the next morning following a moving battlefield tour in the pre-dawn hours.

Eye witnesses would later recount how Lincoln seemed pre-occupied toward the end of Everett's oration, fidgeting with a crumpled piece of paper as if studying its contents.

There would be no fidgeting, however, as he slowly and clearly mouthed the opening sentence to the 10,000 onlookers - "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" - perhaps the most iconic phrase in presidential history.

The great struggle of the war, he concluded – the reason why the fallen had given their "last full measure of devotion" – was so 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."

After three years of wretched fighting that had left hundreds of thousands of dead, and with the Confederacy on the brink of collapse, Lincoln had finally recast the purpose and meaning of the Civil War.  More than just preserving the Union, it was really about perfecting the imperfect Declaration of Independence.  And in the process forming a more perfect Union.

More On This...