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The Greatest Speech in U.S. History: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

February 13, 2019

By Clark Musser with Travis Pickens

On Nov. 19, 1863, two and a half years into the Civil War and just outside the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a national cemetery was dedicated. The customary centerpiece of such ceremonies was an oration, usually lasting two or more hours. The organizers were assured of a successful event when Edward Everett, the greatest orator of the age, agreed to deliver the oration. The president of the United States was asked to make the formal dedication by providing “a few appropriate remarks.”

Mr. Everett’s oration, which preceded the president’s dedication, was described by an informed observer as “spellbinding;” he held the crowd of 15,000 in “rapt attention” for two hours. Moments thereafter, Abraham Lincoln – in two and a half minutes, 10 sentences and 272 words – changed the course of world history. As historian Joseph Ellis tells us, “Lincoln captured equality and liberty and made them integral to our nationhood.”

The Address is a benediction to all who died – not just those in blue – and it was a raison d’etre for our nation, which was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

While Lincoln is, of course, best remembered for his achievements as our nation’s president, perhaps our greatest, it is important to remember he was a highly skilled and successful lawyer. He was described by his longtime law partner as “governing all by his intellect and the superiority of his powers of reason,” skills he honed as a trial lawyer. We may deduce Lincoln would not have been able to capture the soul of America and its unique place in history with such irrefutable logic and morality were it not for his devotion to the rule of law and decades of service to his clients.

In his Address, Lincoln merged the principles of equality and liberty with such eloquence and logic that they have become morally irrefutable, and thus upheld ever since by all right-minded lawyers and judges. Before Lincoln’s presidency, numerous statesmen, writers and clerics in concert with various organizations and societies advocated abolition of slavery. Few, if any, espoused equality under the law, regardless of race.

Every time a lawyer drafts a law, or argues a law, and every time a judge interprets and applies a law, Lincoln’s words are manifest. Every time a lawyer represents the poor, the powerless, the inept and the insane, or the rich, the powerful, the able and the keen, the lawyer preserves the spirit of Lincoln at Gettysburg. 

We lawyers may not feel Lincoln’s hand upon our shoulders, but it is there.

Mr. Musser and Mr. Pickens practice in Oklahoma City.

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