Saturday 19 November 2011

Four Score and Seven Years Ago

"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."

It lasted only two minutes and change, but the speech that the weary President delivered on November 19, 1863, devoid of his trademark tophat, has been remembered for almost a century and a half. The Gettysburg address is one of the most famous American speeches ever delivered at a time when the nation was more divided than it had been since the American Revolution. President Lincoln was there to consecrate the grounds of a new cemetery where the victims of the Gettysburg Battle had been buried only four months before. The leader was also at Gettysburg to remind the crowd that the United States of America was founded on democratic principles that were being threatened by slavery.

What was the reaction to Lincoln's speech? Some maintained that the crowd was almost hushed into silence by the President's stirring words; others claimed that the crowd was not buying it. Historian
Shelby Foote described the applause for Lincoln's speech as "delayed and scattered". Mr. Foote was featured in the Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War" broadcast on PBS in 1990. Burns' documentary is an excellent account of what transpired during the four year period from 1861 to 1865, drawing on 16,000 archival photographs, paintings and newspaper images from the era. The director employed actors to read quotes from historical figures including Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass and Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln. A highlight of the documentary was the theme song "Ashokan Farewell", a haunting tune that was played 25 times during the course of the show.

President Lincoln finished his speech with the powerful words:

"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."

General Robert E. Lee surrendered on behalf of the Confederacy on April 9, 1865 and the nation was whole once again. Sadly, the leader that helped keep America together was felled by an assasin's bullet only five days later in Washington, D.C.

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