Address by Illinois Governor James R. Thompson

Gettysburg National Cemetery

November 19, 1987

            I come to this hallowed ground today from the state that proudly tells the world it is the “Land of Lincoln.”  Abraham Lincoln is part of us.

            A governor, of the state of Lincoln, I have the privilege of seeing Lincoln through different eyes.

            I’ve visited all of the counties that boast of being platted by Lincoln the surveyor, and the towns that once hosted a Lincoln-Douglas debate.

            I have spoken from the same legislative chamber where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech.

            I sometimes escort foreign visitors to the only home that Lincoln ever owned – purchased in 1844 for $1,500 and now a national historic site visited by one-half million people every year.

            I’ve sat in the office where Lincoln and Billy Herndon nurtured a growing law practice, and where fruit trees would start to root from the seeds dropped to the dirt between the wooden planks.

            I’ve written speeches at the same desk that Lincoln used to write his first inaugural address and read papers in his own handwriting, including one copy of the Gettysburg Address now in our Lincoln Collection.

            I’ve stood at the railroad platform where Lincoln said farewell to Springfield on his departure to Washington, D.C. and I’ve laid wreaths at the tomb that holds his remains.

            For those reasons, Lincoln has come alive for me.  Lincoln the boy, the dedicated circuit rider, the state legislator, the debater, the president.

            But I had to come to Gettysburg to experience fully another Lincoln – the man who bore the burden of the war where brother shed brother’s blood.

            I had to come to Gettysburg to know better the man who shouldered the responsibility for justifying that war to the wounded survivors and to the mothers and fathers, the wives and children of the soldiers who died, not only at Gettysburg, but at Vicksburg, Murfreesboro, Fredericksburg and too many other battlefields.

            On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln journeyed to the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  A terrible battle had been fought there and the appropriate ceremony taken to consecrate the remains of the brave Union soldiers who fell there was finally at hand.  Invitations by circular broadside went out to all sorts of officers and representatives of federal, state, and local governments.  The great classical orator of the day and a four-term governor of Massachusetts, Edward Everett was invited to deliver the main address.

            Almost as an afterthought, they invited the President of the United States; his invitation – the same circular form distributed to everyone else – arriving just two weeks before the ceremony itself.  And when Lincoln communicated with those in charge of the ceremony, it was made quite clear to him that he was not the main orator of the day, that his remarks – coming at the conclusion of the main address – were expected to be short and, above all, serious.

            It was a difficult time for Lincoln – 1863 had not been a kind year to the President of the United States.  Criticism of his conduct of the war between the states; criticism of the continued existence of the war between the states, insistent clamor from the South and its sympathizers that Lincoln’s stated goal for the war, the preservation of the Union, was but a cover for his real goal – the abolition of slavery.

            In fact, Lincoln was so little thought of that there were serious questions about whether he could be re-nominated by his party for a second term in the Convention of 1864.  And when Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican leader in the House, heard that Lincoln was to be invited to Gettysburg to speak at the dedication of the cemetery, he characterized it as “the dead going to eulogize the dead.”

            Lincoln did speak on that day, for about three minutes.  And it is appropriate, I think, on this day, 124 years later to recall a few of those words.

            He said, “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.”

            Lincoln’s point was that the stake in the Civil War was the existence of a nation which had been born out of the twin ideals of liberty and equality.  If civil war could destroy that nation, if the union of the states which gave birth to the nation could be forced apart by secession and hostility then the underlying ideas which were the reason for the nation’s existence, liberty and equality, would themselves be destroyed.

            And so preservation of the Union as the means by which liberty and equality would endure on the continent of America was essential in Lincoln’s view to the preservation and the existence of those ideals themselves.  In this view, union and abolition were intertwined.

            He said, “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

            This was a dedication of a cemetery and it called for words.  In fact, it was so important that one of the greatest and grandest orators of the day had been invited to consecrate that ground by his words.  And he was certainly equal to the occasion.  He spoke for more than two hours.

            But when Lincoln rose to respond he said, "We cannot dedicate.  We cannot consecrate.  We cannot 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.”

            Lincoln believed that as inspiring as Edward Everett’s message might have been – as appropriate as it was to dedicate a cemetery that would hold the remains of those who had fought to preserve a Union by words – in a real sense, words were not enough.  Oratory, recollection, exhortation couldn’t carry the day.  The deeds – the bravery of Meade’s forces in repelling Pickett’s charge up Cemetery Ridge – had consecrated this resting place and the words simply recalled the deeds as the higher force.

            And then he said something that reminds us of the purpose of recalling history.  He said, “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.”

            They met to dedicate a cemetery, but the President of the United States – charged with keeping together a nation born of equality and liberty – said it was for the living rather than the dead to be dedicated.  It was for the future rather than the past that they had assembled, else no meaning could be given to the sacrifice and the valor and the blood which colored these grounds.  If the living were not dedicated to the preservation of the Union and successfully concluded the war to keep it together, then those brave men would have died in vain.

            Lincoln’s oration was met with approbation by Edward Everett, who sent the President a note telling him that he had hit the heart of the matter in two minutes, while Mr. Everett had failed to approach it in two hours.

            But that was not a unanimous opinion. 

Lincoln thought his effort “weak.”  And scores of newspapers across the nation criticized the address in furious tones, believing it to have been not an appropriate remembrance of military valor, but, “silly” – as the Harrisburg Patriot said, a taunting political address triumphantly concealed, as Professor Danto has said.  And from Lincoln’s state, the Chicago Times said:  “Mr. Lincoln did most foully traduce the motives of the men who were slain at Gettysburg.  They gave their lives to maintain the old government and the only Constitution and union, and Lincoln perverted history, misstated the cause for which they had died, and with ignorant rudeness insulted the memory of the dead.  Readers will not have failed to observe the acceding bad taste which characterized the remarks of the President at the dedication of the soldier cemetery at Gettysburg.  The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

Harsh words, harsh words indeed.

But whether Americans’ cheeks tingled with shame on that occasion, today barely a schoolchild in America escapes memorization of the Gettysburg Address.  And most American adults can, at least haltingly, recall words, phrases, ideas.  My other political hero – Theodore Roosevelt – characterized it as the greatest speech ever made.  But how well have Americans in 1987 heeded Lincoln’s view that the leadership of the living was more important than sacrifices of the dead?  How far have we come from the Edward Everett trap – that exalted words over deeds?

In 1987, we have already lost one candidate for President who was encouraged to enter the contest, at least in part, for his oratorical skills – and forced out of the race when it was revealed that while the skills were his, the oratory was not.

“Character” – elusive, indefinable (I suppose, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography we “know it when we see it”) is exalted over the stuff of leadership.

We know Abe Lincoln couldn’t be confirmed for the Supreme Court today, but could he even be nominated for President?

Could Abraham Lincoln be a candidate for President of the United States today?  Could he survive the kind of political inquiries which surround our presidential candidates in the name of ensuring that they have “character?”  Imagine – reporters hiding in the bushes outside his Springfield home; a Mike Wallace interview with Billy Herndon reporting on Mary Lincoln’s mental state and Abe’s eccentricities and depression.  Would he have been great on Nightline?

This and succeeding generations – weaned on television and satellite communications are constantly bombarded with the immediacy of our existence.  We do remember nothing and forget nothing.  Why don’t we save the TV replays for Sunday afternoon football?  Why don’t we depart from the headlines and the instant assessments of character and competence and judgment and look to the real world and what people achieve?  Or can achieve?  Could anyone else in Lincoln’s time have endured all that he endured to save the Union?  No name comes to my mind.  Perhaps not to yours.

Lincoln understood that while words excite and explain, it is the idea which commands action and the dream that ennobles deeds.  This generation of Americans needs to learn that.


Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania



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