Skip to main content

Ken Burns: Learn Lincoln's words by heart

By Ken Burns, Special to CNN
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 2324 GMT (0724 HKT)
President Abraham Lincoln's statue looks out over the National Mall from the inside of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
President Abraham Lincoln's statue looks out over the National Mall from the inside of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tuesday we mark the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
  • Ken Burns: The words spoken at a Civil War cemetery are some of the most important ever
  • Burns is launching "Learn the Address," a way to more fully understand democracy
  • Burns says today, we should ask ourselves what has made these words endure

Editor's note: Ken Burns has been making films for more than 30 years. His latest documentary, "The Address," premieres on PBS on April 15. Watch Burns on "CNN Newsroom" on Tuesday in the 10 a.m. hour.

(CNN) -- On Tuesday, our nation will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. President Abraham Lincoln spoke for only two minutes. He started off by reminding his audience that it had been only 87 years since the country's founding, and then went on to embolden the Union cause with some of the most stirring words ever spoken.

He hoped that despite the terrible battle that had taken place at Gettysburg, his country might still have, as he put it, "a new birth of freedom."

Within his famous address, he stated, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Yet a century and a half later, we still honor those sacred words he spoke on the battlefield in Pennsylvania as some of the most important words ever spoken.

Ken Burns
Ken Burns

It is my hope that Americans across our great nation will take this occasion to look deeper into the history and legacy of the Gettysburg Address and the great sacrifices for freedom Lincoln honored in the midst of the Civil War.

A great way to start is by simply picking up the brief speech and reading it aloud. Read it to your children, your parents and your friends. As you read this timeless piece of oratory, engage in a discussion with those around you on what these words mean to us today.

Let us ask ourselves how it is these words have endured the test of time, especially in current times. We suffer today from what the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said was "too much pluribus and not enough unum." Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the union from which so many of our personal, as well as collective, blessings flow.

Indeed, we have to look no further than the story of a tiny school in Putney, Vermont, the Greenwood School, to understand why this speech above so many others survives. Each year at the school students are challenged to memorize and then publicly recite the Gettysburg Address. These students, boys 11 to 17, all face a range of complex learning differences that make their personal, academic and social progress challenging.

Abraham Lincoln arrives to deliver the Gettysburg Address, center right, November 19, 1863.\n \n
Abraham Lincoln arrives to deliver the Gettysburg Address, center right, November 19, 1863.
Thousands of Civil War soldiers are buried at Gettysburg, a battle that claimed 51,000 lives, according to the U.S. Army.
Thousands of Civil War soldiers are buried at Gettysburg, a battle that claimed 51,000 lives, according to the U.S. Army.
Crowds gather for the dedication of the cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield the day before Lincoln spoke.
Crowds gather for the dedication of the cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield the day before Lincoln spoke.

I was inspired by these students and that President Lincoln's historic words motivated them, so much that I am launching today an initiative to encourage as many people across the nation, especially students, to read aloud and learn about the Gettysburg Address.

All five living U.S. presidents, as well as newsmakers and notable Americans from across the country, have already submitted videos of themselves reciting the address to learntheaddress.org. In the tradition of our great democracy, anyone who wishes to participate can join us in doing the same.

As we consider Lincoln's words, we come to a greater appreciation of the significance of that day, just four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, when the president of the United States of America journeyed to the now-quiet battlefield to dedicate a cemetery to those who fell in the greatest battle ever fought on American soil, in a war that had torn our fragile Republic in two.

It is my hope, and that of so many people who have helped with the "Learn the Address" initiative, that we embrace the 150th anniversary and take this opportunity to more fully understand our democracy and our freedom.

That we all discover the Gettysburg Address beyond "four score and seven years ago." In doing so, we hope to appreciate more fully "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

+ + +

THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- 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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ken Burns.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT