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Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address

The death penalty, the awful symbol of a criminal justice system weighted against the poor. Tax inequality. Taxpayers' money used to shore up Wall Street.

Opposition to healthcare for all. Opposition to immigration reform. Government surveillance. No one needs a history degree to know the fight for equality and popular democracy did not end, with the American Civil War, in Lincoln led a war effort which resulted in the abolition of slavery.


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We should never forget this — particularly when powerful reminders are available. Mark the th anniversary of Lincoln's speech with a viewing of 12 Years a Slave and you will be reminded, with a succession of terrible jolts, that in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln simply stated the truth. The writer of that film, Tony Ridley, is American. But like me the director, Steve McQueen, is British. So is his star, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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The female lead, Lupita Nyong'o, is Kenyan. The Gettysburg Address is a foundation stone of American history, but like the Declaration of Independence which it cites , it also resonates around the world. Lincoln's words speak clearly to those of us who are from countries, however benignly governed, in which all men are not deemed to be equal.


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It speaks more urgently to those still living under slavery, or theocracy, or dictatorship. We are all equal — regardless of birth, colour, religious belief or the lack of it, sex or sexual orientation. We are all equal regardless of wealth. We have made strides in recognising that equality, but in the century and a half since slavery fell we have not come close to perfecting it.

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Our governments should at least attempt to do so. Today, then, we might ask: called upon to read Lincoln's words, could any of our leaders possibly do them justice?

We have a chance to find out. The list includes every living president , as well as congressmen, mayors, historians, journalists and Whoopi Goldberg. Stephen Colbert's performance is meant to be funny. Marco Rubio's, less so. For Lincoln , getting to the speech—as a statement of ideas and as an event—was both an intellectual and physical journey.

President Lincoln Delivered the Gettysburg Address

The president began to compose his words in Washington with one set of ideas, incorporated in the draft of the speech that he took with him when he left the White House. Yet by the time he stood on the platform at Gettysburg a day later, he had experienced for the first time the battlefield and the little town in the grip of patriotic celebration of loyalty and commemoration.

Newsreel: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - 1951

And he had deeply felt the solemn funeral rites for more than 3, heroes. The changes to the text he had prepared the night before brought a new vision to his speech, including a wholly new second page incorporating a more assertive sense of dedication.