the observer Sat 05 September 2009
When Abraham Lincoln rose to address the 15,000 people gathered to witness the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on 19 November 1863, four months after the American civil war's bloodiest battle, it was not expected to be a keynote speech. Former secretary of state Edward Everett was the main speaker and Lincoln's assigned role was merely to make a short dedication afterwards. But it was the president's stirring yet succinct two-minute address - with references to the Declaration of Independence and Pericles's funeral oration during the Peloponnesian war, and delivered in his high-pitched Kentucky accent - that has resonated through the ages and come to be seen as one of the defining moments in American history.
By late 1863, although the Union was winning, public sentiment in the north was turning against the war and against Lincoln and his unpopular drafts. The Gettysburg Address was a masterstroke in that it redefined the conflict as a struggle for "a new birth of freedom" that would ensure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth".
As the Gettysburg Address only stretches to 271 words, this edition also includes some of Lincoln's other key speeches, including his two inaugural addresses and his three-hour speech at Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, which outlined the case against slavery and marked his re-entry into politics after six years spent concentrating on his career as a lawyer. However, if there is a quibble with this otherwise fine collection of rhetoric, it is that it might have benefited from an introduction to put these speeches into context.