On November 19, 1863, when the American Civil War was in its third year, President Abraham Lincoln gave his now-immortal Gettysburg Address. The purpose of that speech was to commemorate and solemnize a part of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, battlefield where more than 50,000 men, soldiers of the North and the South, had been killed in three days of fighting that many consider the turning point in the war. However, in that brief speech, the president also set forth a vision of democracy and national purpose that has inspired Americans of all ages ever since. Recently, a sixth grade teacher in Washington, D.C., brought his class to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 11-year-olds recited the Gettysburg Address. As Adam Phillips tells us, they had been memorizing and pondering those words since the school year began in September.
On a blustery November day, George Penny's sixth grade class stood on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., took a collective deep breath, and prepared to utter what many believe to be the finest speech in American history.
Mr. Penny says he spent a long time helping his students understand the deceptively simple 269 words of Lincoln's speech.
"The Gettysburg Address is, first, a definition of our democratic form of government. ... It is a cornerstone of our mythology," he explained. And I do spend a lot of time with the children paraphrasing each sentence and discuss in the meaning of it and putting it in historical context. And they aren't just saying beautiful words, but they are saying beautiful words that they understand."
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. ... We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
Like his classmates, Sean McEvor worked hard to memorize and understand these words. "I think it is basically about remembering one of the most famous speeches ever about one of the worst things that could happen," he said. "The Civil War was really a horrible war, and the Battle of Gettysburg was, I think, the worst part of it. So many people died in so little time. And the country was fighting itself, which isn't a good thing."
Several parents accompanied their children to the Memorial in support of the project. "I think that at this time, it's so pertinent for them to understand that, although the speech was given a long time ago, it really applies to all the people who fight for our country, explained Wilma Williams. "And that freedom is absolutely a gift that we have and we have to keep it at all costs. ... And I think that children should not forget that."
"If [my son] Jake could come away with one thing," added Bryan Jordan, "I would like it would be the knowledge of how the men who fought and died at Gettysburg, how much they gave and their willingness to give, which is what Lincoln says.
But, in a larger sense, 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.
Ten-year-old Jeremy Gwinner says he loved working on this project.
"I like the sentence, really. 'That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom.' ... I think it means that this country under God will be reunited and that slaves will be freed. ... I really admire [Lincoln] because he led the country through the Civil War, and he said that no matter what the cost is, I'll bring this nation together.
That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.