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Nation long remembers short remarks by Lincoln on Gettysburg Address anniversary

November 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Abraham Lincoln thought the world would little note nor long remember what he said at Gettysburg, but his call for a new birth of freedom out of the carnage of the Civil War has long endured.

Now, fourscore and 70 years later, Jeffrey Brown looks back at the legacy of the address.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was just five months after the Civil War’s bloodiest battle when Abraham Lincoln came to help dedicate a national cemetery to honor the 51,000 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing.

About 15,000 spectators were in attendance. The keynote speaker, famed orator and politician Edward Everett, spoke for two hours, Lincoln for two minutes, and, with some 270 words, delivered one of the most memorable addresses in American history, helping make sense of the great sacrifice and loss of the war, reshaping and, for many, redefining the nation’s identity going forward.

One of five existing copies of the manuscript is now on display at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s believed to be the first draft and the one from which Lincoln read that day. It’s written on two pieces of paper, one formal in pen, the other on a notebook page and in pencil.

Michelle Krowl is the exhibit’s curator.

MICHELLE KROWL, Library of Congress: What you see is that Lincoln worked on the address in Washington first, and then probably got to Gettysburg and changed his mind about the ending. So you can think about what might have inspired Lincoln to change that ending about a new birth of freedom and a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

JEFFREY BROWN: A century-and-a-half later, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is honoring those sacred words by urging Americans to post videos of themselves reading Lincoln’s speech on the Web site learntheaddress.org.

Dozens of notable public figures, including all five living U.S. presidents, have submitted recordings.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: That this nation under God.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Shall have a new birth of freedom.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON:  And that government of the people.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: By the people, for the people.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Shall not perish from the earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those same words were also echoed today in Gettysburg, as thousands flocked to the site of Lincoln’s address for a ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary.