On November 19, 151 years ago, these powerful words of President Abraham Lincoln echoed across the national cemetery in Gettysburg over the graves of more than 3,500 Union soldiers. Of course, Lincoln underestimated the staying power of his words. We have long remembered what he said on that day—and we continue to be moved by the simple humility in these words and Lincoln’s deference to those who “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg via an invitation from David Wills, a Gettysburg College (then Pennsylvania College) alumnus and community leader who requested the president deliver “a few appropriate remarks” on behalf of the fallen.
The town was broken. Gettysburg had witnessed firsthand a nation ripping itself apart—a three-day battle that saw the number of dead, wounded, and missing top 50,000. Gettysburg College’s central administration building, Pennsylvania Hall, became a hospital where more than 700 wounded and dying were treated.
The bloodiest battle of the Civil War swept through our community in an instant, leaving death, destruction, and anguish in its wake.
The community needed a moment of healing. And it needed leadership.
The chief orator at the ceremony devoted to the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was Edward Everett. He had been asked to deliver the keynote address. Words defined Everett. As one of the great orators of his time, Everett crafted a 13,607-word speech.
Like the Greek orators he idolized, he elegantly described vivid details of the battle and interwove themes of remembrance and reconciliation over the course of two hours. The speech was brilliant, eliciting tears from some of the townspeople who attended.
But Everett’s words would never “stick” with the American public.
Then Lincoln rose to speak—10 sentences, 2 minutes, a mere 272 words.
This was a moment of great leadership. Lincoln’s words were not flowery. His focus was not on rhetoric, but on action—our “unfinished work,” the “great task remaining before us.”
Those 272 words still inspire us today.
We live in a time of change and challenge, in a world that has become tightly interconnected and that is experiencing change at a dizzying pace, accelerated by technology—a world that is reeling from violence, strife, hunger, and disease.
Clearly, there are great tasks remaining before us. So how will we tackle our challenges? How will we address the unfinished work of today?
The answers do not lie in divisiveness and long-winded rhetoric. Instead, we need humility, collaboration, and a focus on action. We need to embrace the approach so clearly laid out by Lincoln 151 years ago.