All roads to our America lead through Gettysburg. 150 years ago, President Lincoln arrived there around dusk and set foot on the sacred soil that, just four months earlier, had run with blood of the Civil War. Then the next morning, November 19, 1863, he stood under a clear sky—on earth since transformed from a battlefield to a burial ground—and delivered a deceptively simple speech atop Cemetery Hill that, in just a few short minutes, changed American history forever.
To this day, the Gettysburg Address continues to shape who we are as a people and as a nation. Without it, we don’t have Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 100 years later saying, “I Have a Dream.” We don’t have John and Robert Kennedy taking the first tentative steps toward civil rights legislation. We don’t have, nearly 50 years after that, the election of our nation’s first black president.
Without the Gettysburg Address, we don’t have the promise of America brought to complicated, often difficult life.
In the battle itself, more than 50,000 men on both sides had been killed, captured or wounded in a three-day struggle that ended with the Confederate army retreating south across the Potomac. It was a Union victory, in a way, but Lincoln was furious and disappointed that Federal troops hadn’t pursued the defeated Confederates as they marched back, crushed the rebel army and ended the war.
In the ensuing months, as the fighting dragged on, Lincoln tried to make sense of the magnitude and duration of the conflict and of its enormous, mounting losses. What was the essence of the nation for which so many Americans, black as well as white, had sacrificed so much? How did the ultimate meaning of America explain, perhaps even redeem, the war itself and why it must continue to be waged?
It was out of his unshakeable responsibility, his empathy, his melancholy, his exasperation, his ability to divine the right and his commitment to preserve the Union that the substance of what would become the Gettysburg Address was born.
With his speech, he provided a template for what we have since come to define as the heart of great American leadership. Lincoln shared his vision for the country’s future, helping its citizens look beyond the horrors toward greater good—and beyond the nation’s imperfections and dangers, toward progress and redemption.
Lincoln left Gettysburg the evening of November 19th satisfied he had delivered his intended messages: a rebirth of founding ideals and a plea for his fellow Americans to change their own hearts. He explained how the conflict would serve as a reconstruction of the “nation,” a word he used five times in that short address. In late 1863, however, no one believed that the president’s remarks comprised a speech for the ages.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that the speech began to take on the resonance it has today. The 50th and 75th anniversaries of the Civil War, and particularly the anniversary celebrations of the battle of Gettysburg itself, brought renewed interest in Lincoln’s crucial leadership role.
His speech ultimately became a powerful, irrevocable and undeniable part of our national identity. Arguably the most quoted, most memorized piece of oratory in American history, generations of school children have learned its cadences by heart. Small wonder its phrases have become part of our vernacular, and its gravitas an authoritative expression of the American spirit. Because of Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, we live in a different America, one that is much more aligned with the ideals of the Declaration, in which every one of us has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There is no United States, as we know it today, without Lincoln, the man who acted as both the architect and the contractor for the remodeling of America. Yet Lincoln would live to see but a glimpse of that future.
When he was assassinated in April 1865, a Union victory was assured, and Congress had passed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery forever. Still, it would be another hundred years before the promise of America would take its next big step forward in the civil rights movement. And even in this later struggle, we have traveled roads that Lincoln laid out in Gettysburg. For King and other activists, the address symbolized what our country could—and was meant to—be. It is no coincidence that King delivered his own defining speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, anchoring the ideals of the civil rights movement in the Gettysburg Address even as he invoked “the fierce urgency of now.”
It was not only the content of Lincoln’s address that went on to shape our 20th- and 21st-century definition of leadership; it was the delivery itself. Over time, we have built a national iconography around figures who resemble Lincoln-like orators. The art of the American speech—an invocation to take the country back to its fundamental purpose while also forward into a future defined by renewed, clarified dedication to this purpose—premiered on that hill in Gettysburg. It has become a signature of leadership in this nation ever since.
Today, at a moment when we have re-elected our first black president and at the same time seen bitter, dysfunctional divisions emerge in our national government, Lincoln’s words remain just as important. The battle for equality, and for a nation united, still wages on. We have not walked a straight or neat or clean line from Gettysburg to here and now. But we could not have done the good we have, as a people or a country, without Lincoln and his commitment to see that the soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg “shall not have died in vain.” Even more than the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, the Gettysburg Address is the promise of America.
Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School.