Can a speech change history? Check out this Google-curated cultural exhibit for a little context, and join in the 150th anniversary celebration this week. In the case of Lincoln’s 270 word address delivered in 1863, the answer is a resounding “yes”:
But the long story is that no single American utterance has had the staying power, or commanded the respect and reverence, accorded the Gettysburg Address. It has been engraved (on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial), translated (in a book devoted to nothing but translations of the address), and analyzed in at least nine book-length critical studies over the last century.
The rhetoric of the speech–in addition to the use of language–is powerful. You can see the basic argument thread here. But the power of the words were not immediately clear to everyone. Even so, they have withstood a time-lapse test. In review of Gary Willss 1992 book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Herbert Mitang writes:
The Gettysburg Address is loaded with delayed-action ideas about the need to create a new nation and a new birth of freedom and, finally — in words that have been cited by revolutionaries and lawmakers in countries all over the world — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Mr. Wills observes what the Address did not include: No single individual is named, no distinction is made between officers and enlisted men, no difference between the men who wore blue or gray. The carefully chosen words (written at the White House, needless to say, not casually, on the back of an envelope) remain a guidon for liberty and equality. In the midst of war, Lincoln spoke for the ages.
You can watch a variety of Americans, from former presidents (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton) to public figures (Wolf Blitzer, Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K.) reading the address in a PBS/Ken Burns collaboration.