Not that everyone knew then that it was a great speech. The great orator, Edward Everett, had just spoken for 2 hours and many people barely noticed Mr. Lincoln's brief remarks. The Harrisburg newspaper notoriously shredded the speech (last week they printed a retraction just a bit late).
Time has been much kinder to the speech of course.
If you ever get the chance to visit Gettysburg National Park, be sure to go to the cemetery. Find the spot where Lincoln stood and look in the direction he looked and contemplate all those small white stones. And then remember that the President looked not at gravestones, but at newly dug graves.
To me Lincoln did 2 things with his speech. He defined what equality meant in American society. and he defined the meaning of a soldier's sacrifice in war better perhaps than anyone else ever.
He quoted the Declaration of Independence and its statement that "All Men are created equal." He knew that the phrase didn't mean the same thing to the Founders that it meant 100 years later, let alone what it means to us now, but that didn't matter. The premise of the nation was that all are equal. And it was clear, to Lincoln at least, that the definition of whom was covered by "all men" had changed. "Ever since Gettysburg, other persons have sought their rights under the same criteria as Lincoln gave at that day, maintaining the immigrants, religious minorities, women, gays and others have appealed to the decency of their fellow citizens on the grounds that they too were created equal.
Then he turns to the purpose of the gathering. . "We are met on a battlefield of this war." And he tells why they are there, to dedicate a cemetery as a burial place and memorial for those who died on the hills and fields around the burial ground.
Veterans Day was last week. (A melancholy legacy of a different war) How many times did you hear Lincoln's phrase "The last full measure of devotion" used? Has any other single phrase so perfectly captured those who go to war for us?
In conclusion he reminded those present that they had a duty as well, to continue to keep our country and democracy strong so that the dead we
owe so much to "did not die in vain."
It's an urban myth that because this speech was short, it was a toss off by Mr Lincoln. He never tossed off a speech. He wrote them all himself, carefully, with an eye to the audience beyond the one he was directly addressing.
In this case he had his eye on us as well.