On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave the famous Gettysburg Address in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Gettysburg was the scene, on July 1-3 of that year, of one of the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War.  As he memorialized the fallen soldiers, Lincoln defined their fight as a way of securing the Declaration of Independence’s promise that all men are created equal.

This meaning Lincoln gave to the Civil War was a significant change from the ways he had previously spoken about it. Throughout his career, Lincoln explained his beliefs about slavery in speeches and writings. From the time before his candidacy to his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, he consistently expressed his personal disgust for slavery while maintaining his primary goal of preserving the Union.

While campaigning for the presidency in 1860, Lincoln had asserted in the Cooper’s Union Address that the men who wrote the Constitution believed Congress had the power to control slavery in new territories.  After his election, fearful that under Lincoln, the United States government would deprive the South of slavery and states rights, eleven southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.  In his First Inaugural Address in 1861, Lincoln explained that he had no plans to end slavery where it already existed, but that the southern states’ secession was not acceptable. In April of the same year, Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter and the Civil War began.

Although Lincoln had made his position on slavery clear, he had many critics in the North who argued he should take steps to end slavery.  One critic, newspaper owner Horace Greeley, wrote an open letter to Lincoln expressing his disappointment in the president’s policies and execution of the law.  In September 1862, Lincoln answered Greeley and other critics in an edition of Harper’s Weekly magazine. He stated that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery…[though] I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”

At the same time that the Harper’s Weekly article was published, Lincoln was writing the Emancipation Proclamation.  The proclamation freed slaves in the rebellious Southern states as of January 1, 1863.  In July 1863, the great battle at Gettysburg was fought over three long days.  In November, Lincoln visited the site for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and gave his famous Gettysburg Address.  The short speech is one of the most well known in American history, and it transformed the meaning of the war and even the meaning of the nation’s Founding documents.

In the address, Lincoln states “Fourscore 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.”  Essentially, Lincoln believed that our country was founded on liberty and equality, and those fighting in the Civil War were trying to protect the nation and to ensure what he called “a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”  In his 2009 book, American Public Philosophy and the Mystery of Lincolnism, Eric C. Sands explains that Lincoln used the Gettysburg Address to spotlight the principles of the Declaration, equality and liberty for all, as the nation’s true moral compass.

Fighting in the Civil War ended in April 1865 with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia just days before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  In December 1865, the question of slavery would be settled once and for all with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

How do you think the Gettysburg Address played a role in the Civil War?

Posted in The Constitution Throughout History


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