The significance of the Gettysburg Address is not lost on local educators and historians, who say President Abraham Lincoln’s short speech still defines the nation he helped preserve.
Dr. Richard Lowe, a history professor at the University of North Texas, explained that Lincoln’s speech on Nov. 19, 1863 — seven score and 10 years ago — was not the only one given that day but was easily the most memorable.
Before Lincoln raised his voice in a field in Pennsylvania, a Massachusetts politician named Edward Everett spoke for more than two hours about the nation’s “obligations to the martyrs and surviving heroes” of a three-day Civil War battle in which almost 8,000 died.
Afterward, it took Lincoln only two minutes to say fewer than 300 words, but those words still resonate 150 years later as the best definition to date of what the United States actually was then and is now, Lowe said.
“When the country was founded, there was a question of whether a democratic system could work,” Lowe said. “More people said no than yes.”
Lincoln’s message was that the Founding Fathers started the nation with a democratic system, and the Civil War was the most dire test of whether that system would work, Lowe said.
The Gettysburg Address nailed down the reasons why the North was fighting to preserve the Union, and those reasons remain relevant, said Dr. Steven Woodworth, a history professor at Texas Christian University and the author of 15 books, most on the Civil War.
“Lincoln addressed a timeless theme of what America means — freedom and self-governance,” Woodworth said. “Lincoln believed the North was fighting for both. That’s what America is still supposed to be about.”
Americans have more than 200 years of experience to tell us that democracy can work, Lowe said.
“It doesn’t always work, but it can,” Lowe said. “Our definition of democracy today is much more powerful, including all races and genders.”
The Gettysburg Address was the first time that Lincoln declared that the North was united in proclaiming that all men really are created equal, said Ray Richey, curator and major benefactor of the Texas Civil War Museum in west Fort Worth.
Lincoln “also made a statement that they were going to see the war through, whatever it took,” Richey said. “They were going to finish a task that had been set before them and unite all Americans, every man created equal in the new era.”
The Gettysburg Address is as relevant today as it was in 1863 “and will live into the future as a monumental document that unites all of us as Americans,” Richey said.
Lincoln’s message also reminds Americans that unfinished work remains and that “our democracy requires us to take a proactive role to maintain the government of the people,” said Corena White, a government teacher at Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus.
“Rancor has challenged the American government and will likely continue,” White said. “However, Lincoln's amiable approach to a deeply divided country is a behavior that we could benefit to model.”
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 battle-field 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.