Gettysburg Address: 5 famous quotes explained

Story highlights

  • President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at a turning point in the Civil War
  • Meant to mobilize the nation in a time of crisis, the speech went viral in its day

(CNN)The Gettysburg Address was a quick-hitting speech that was built to last.

Length: A little over two minutes.
Message: Stay the course of a difficult war. If Democracy won't work here, it won't work anywhere.
    On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was able to get straight to the point and deliver a punchy speech in part because he came after Edward Everett's marathon presentation about the war, explains James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
    Everett had been the main attraction, but Lincoln's speech started picking up steam afterward and seemed to "go viral" in the manner of its day.
    Newspapers wrote about the speech. In some cities, people could buy commemorative event pamphlets that contained the speech, and key phrases were incorporated into Lincoln's 1864 election posters and memorials after his death.
    His words are some of the most memorable in American history, forever stamping our collective minds with "four score and seven years ago," and "all men are created equal," and of course a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
    Here is a nonexhaustive rundown of some of the most popular phrases in the speech, in order of appearance.

    'Four score and seven years ago'

    Pretty much everyone knows this part of the Gettysburg Address, even if they think a score is just something from sports. But no, in this case a score is 20 of something. Here, a span of 20 years.
    This line is a bit of an inside remark shared with the audience, believed by most historians to be a reference to Psalm 90:10, which most people of the day would know is an allusion to the human lifespan.
    "The days of our years are threescore years and 10," says the psalm. "And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."
    Cornelius said Lincoln used such phrasing as a subtle reminder that the nation was only a youthful 87 years old. Lincoln felt the United States was setting an example for the world, and he didn't want the experiment in democracy to fail.
    "He's a little bit worried that the nation might die at about the average lifespan that a human would," Cornelius said. "He's putting forth straightforward political terms in a poetic way."
    That, and people tend to remember the beginnings of speeches, Cornelius said.

    'All men are created equal'

    More clever wordplay is at work in this famous quotation.
    "In his call for democracy and equality, (Lincoln) doesn't mention slavery, but everyone knew that was what he was talking about," Cornelius said.
    See what he did there? This phrase can be interpreted as both an allusion to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and also as a not-so-subtle jab at the institution of slavery.
    Little doubt exists that Lincoln opposed slavery, and in fact loathed it, Cornelius said. Slavery was at the heart of the war. Lincoln struggled with how to go about eliminating it, and had to be convinced by legal thinkers and abolitionists that he had the governmental power to tackle it.

    'These dead shall not have died in vain'

    Lincoln can't take full credit for this phrase, Cornelius said, because it was a fairly common expression used in the parlance of war. It speaks to a need for soldiers' deaths to mean something, if they must occur -- a timeless desire we echo today.
    "This is always a problem in warfare. Why should any other people die? There is always a percentage of the population that will make that argument at a certain point. Lincoln's contrary point was that they died defending you. They felt so strongly about the right of the cause. They felt so strongly about preserving the union and ending slavery that you should not let their efforts carry into the wind. You should continue on and further this effort."

    'This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom'

    For some, this phrase has become a point of political contention due to the presence of the words "under God."
    There are five versions of the speech, and one of them omits those two words.
    Scholars have spent years reflecting on the intersection of American religion and nationalism. "Evangelical efforts to make America a Christian nation justified territorial expansion, while division over slavery solidified competing visions of Christian nationhood," said Amanda Porterfield, a professor of religion at Florida State University.

    'Government of the people, by the people, for the people'

    This famous phrase is such a beloved word grouping that numerous people have borrowed it, massaged it and restated it with a slightly different twist, like a game of telephone in an era without telephones.
    Cornelius said historians trace this part back to Daniel Webster, a senator and U.S. secretary of state before the Civil War. Webster's words were, "The people's government, made for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people."
    It was later repurposed by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who talked about a "government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people."
    Even Lincoln himself is said to have used a version of the phrase in a letter 20 years before the address, Cornelius said.
    The key to the power of this phrase is in its skillful use of repetition, he said. The point of "people" is driven straight into your mind by its frequent mention. That's why so many people have recycled it over the years.
    Fast-forward to today, and we're still talking about all the phrases above. It's a speech that endures like few others, more than 150 years after the fact.