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Shortly before dawn on July 4, 1863, Abraham Lincoln learned that Confederate forces were in retreat after a bloody three-day battle at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Though details were sketchy, Lincoln could finally breathe easier knowing General Robert E. Lee’s rebel army would not be advancing toward Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. That afternoon, on the western front, a Confederate blockade of the Mississippi River was broken when Union forces captured the fortress city of Vicksburg after a six-week siege. The news didn’t reach Washington until three days later, but when it did, a boisterous post–Independence Day celebration broke out in front of the National Hotel.

The exuberance of the crowd was amplified, and then channeled, by the music of the 34th Regimental Band, which struck up a march as the throng moved along Pennsylvania Avenue. Upon reaching the White House, the revelers cheered for the president, who eventually came to the window, evoking demands for a speech.

“I am very glad indeed to see you tonight,” Lincoln said, stilling the tumult slightly. He thanked God for the momentous developments that prompted the visit. “How long ago is it?—eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’” He recalled events that had shared the anniversary of the nation’s birth, beginning with the twin deaths in 1826 of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and ending with the twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. “Gentlemen,” the president concluded, “this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech—but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.”

Lincoln never liked to speak extemporaneously, and this night was no exception. While he shared his visitors’ pleasure that the tide of battle had turned, he couldn’t shake his sense of anguish at what the war was doing to the country—and to him. The conflict had grown in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he took office in 1861. The casualties were shocking, and would have been more shocking if they hadn’t become numbingly familiar. Every day he sent men to their deaths: a hundred here, a thousand there, till his soul, of necessity, turned callous. Opposition to the war, in the heart of the Union, was escalating, and even as it reminded him of the enormity of what he was doing, it threatened his ability to accomplish his goal. The necessities of command compelled him to override the Constitution, in the name of defending it.

He knew he needed to explain. He had to tell the American people why it all was necessary, and what would be the result of their sacrifice. But first he needed to explain it to himself. There must be a higher purpose for all this: for all the death, the suffering, the compromises with principle. America’s struggle—his struggle—had to have a larger meaning. His task was to find that meaning, to give the speech he begged off from tonight, to discover the words that would reassure the nation—and ease his own mind.

When Lincoln first learned of the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he was buoyed by hopes that the end of the war was at hand. He dashed off a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant, who had initially attempted to take Vicksburg by direct assault and, when this failed at sobering cost, had laid siege to the city. “My dear General,” Lincoln wrote, “I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country.” The president confessed that he had disapproved of Grant’s tactical deployment of troops during the assault on Vicksburg. “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”

Lincoln’s pleasure at the double victories soured a bit, and then more, when he learned that General George Gordon Meade failed to deliver a coup de grace to General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia immediately following the Battle of Gettysburg. “I am very—very—grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you,” he wrote in a letter intended for Meade. “But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it.” Meade could have pinned Lee against the Potomac, as heavy rains had made the river impassable. But he let caution paralyze him, and Lee slipped away. “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape,” Lincoln lamented. “He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.”

Lincoln shortly reconsidered this censure; after holding the letter for 24 hours he decided not to send it. He had no replacement for Meade, and he didn’t want the general to resign till he found one. “A few days having passed, I am now profoundly grateful for what was done,” he wrote on July 21 to General Oliver Howard, one of the corps commanders during the Battle of Gettysburg. “Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.” Yet Lincoln never abandoned his conviction that a swifter, stronger commander might have won the war for the Union in the days after Gettysburg, and he never forgave Meade for letting the opportunity slip.

The lost opportunity pained Lincoln the more as the costs of the conflict ramified. In mid-July the city of New York erupted in rioting. Congress had approved America’s first draft law in which men from 18 to 35 years of age were subject to mandatory enlistment, but those who could afford it escaped service by paying a $300 fee.

The draft itself and especially the loophole angered Irish and other immigrants in New York, many of whom disliked African Americans and resented being compelled to fight to free them. Anti-draft protests turned violent, with the protesters attacking the draft offices, the draft officers and then unlucky blacks who happened to be in the area. Authorities were forced to complement police squads with state militia and ultimately several thousand army troops. Before order was restored, on the fourth day of the riot, more than a hundred people were dead, 2,000 were injured, and hundreds of buildings had been damaged or destroyed.

Not for a century would America witness urban violence on a similar scale, and the spectacle made Lincoln cringe. He considered canceling the draft, at least as it applied to New York. How could he fight a war against the Southern rebels if he had to fight a simultaneous war against rebels at home? Was he asking too much of the American people? But he silenced his doubts and decided the Union needed the extra soldiers. Voluntarism was failing, he concluded. “And yet we must somehow obtain more, or relinquish the original object of the contest, together with all the blood and treasure already expended in the effort to secure it.”

The draft riots revealed that for all the momentary good feeling elicited by the Union victories of July, many in the North were sick of war. Some found a strident outlet for their discontent among a vocal group of Democrats known as Copperheads. The victory at Gettysburg was a negative triumph, the Copperheads said, consisting simply of beating back a Confederate invasion. If Meade couldn’t crush or capture Lee when the latter was on Northern soil, how would he ever subdue him in the South? The war might last years more, with the dismaying casualties of Gettysburg multiplied many times over.

Lincoln had to answer. America deserved an explanation. The president’s supporters in Illinois invited him to address a Union rally in Springfield in early September; he pleaded the press of his duties and declined, but sent a letter. “Read it very slowly,” he advised James Conkling, a longtime political ally and personal friend.

“There are those who are dissatisfied with me,” Lincoln’s Springfield letter began. “To such I would say: You desire peace, and you blame me that we do not have it. But how can we attain it?” Lincoln listed three ways: first, through victory by force of arms; second, by simply abandoning the struggle and surrendering the Union; third, by compromise. The first method was the one Lincoln pursued. The second he rejected. That left only the third. But compromise was hardly distinguishable from surrender, Lincoln said. “I do not believe any compromise, embracing the maintenance of the Union, is possible. All I learn leads to a directly opposite belief.” The strength of the rebellion lay in its army, and until the rebel army was subdued, there could be no compromise. “No paper compromise, to which the controllers of Lee’s army are not agreed, can, at all, affect that army.”

Lincoln probed the wellsprings of the peace movement. “To be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro,” he remarked. “Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose that you do not.” Yet this difference didn’t matter, supposing the attachment of the critics to the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was a war-fighting measure, which all supporters of the Union should appreciate. “I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you….I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union.” Of course, enticing the slaves away from their masters and to the side of the Union required offering them an incentive. “Why should they do anything for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise, being made, must be kept.”

Lincoln asserted that victory was closer than the compromisers thought. “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” he said of Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg. Battles in the East revealed the valor of Union soldiers. “It is hard to say that anything has been more bravely and well done than at Antietam, Murfreesboro, Gettysburg, and on many fields of lesser note.”And peace, honorably achieved, would have meaning beyond the present moment and beyond American shores. “It will then have been proved that among free men there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost.”

Lincoln’s Springfield letter proved a false start. The argument was too lawyerly, and the language overall too flat. The effect of the letter, moreover, was spoiled when a mangled version leaked to the press. “I am mortified this morning to find the letter to you, botched up, in the Eastern papers, telegraphed from Chicago,” Lincoln wrote Conkling in early September. “How did this happen?”

Conkling explained that he had transmitted the full letter to newspapers in Springfield, St. Louis and Chicago, with explicit instructions not to publish before he delivered the president’s message to the Springfield rally. “But it appears that a part of it was telegraphed from Chicago to New York contrary to my express directions.” Conkling suggested that the accurate publication of the full letter the next day had erased any confusion.

Lincoln wasn’t so sure, but he moved forward nonetheless. On Sept. 15 he issued a proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus. He had suspended habeas previously, in the case of persons alleged to be directly abetting the rebellion. But now he broadened the suspension to individuals who resisted or interfered with the draft. As he had with the Emancipation Proclamation, he defended his action as necessary to the success of the war effort.

Lincoln’s critics leaped on the habeas suspension, decrying the president’s dictatorial tendencies. Freeing Confederate slaves had been alarming enough, the critics said, but at least that measure had confined its reach to the rebellious South. The habeas order, by contrast, applied to the entire country, and it eviscerated one of the rights on which personal liberty rested, and for which the war was being fought. To be sure, Lincoln said the suspension would apply only to a specific few; persons charged with ordinary crimes could still demand their day in court. But it required little imagination to conjure scenarios in which critics of the army or of the president would be accused of obstructing the war effort and tossed into prison.

The next day Lincoln issued another audacious directive. Union forces had occupied the sea islands on South Carolina’s coast by the end of 1861, scaring off the owners of many of the plantations in that district. Lincoln decreed that the plantations be sold in parcels of 320 acres or less, and smaller parcels of 20 acres reserved for “heads of families of the African race.” The limit on the larger parcels was to ensure the breakup of the plantation system; the set-aside for the freedmen was “for the charitable purpose of providing homes for such heads of families and their families respectively, so as to give them an interest in the soil.”

Lincoln’s directive for South Carolina promised a radical overturning of Southern society. By all appearances Lincoln’s appetite for power was growing. The diffidence of his first months in office, when he had exercised his war powers cautiously and disclaimed authority to tamper with slavery in the Southern states, had vanished. This new Lincoln assaulted fundamental aspects of democratic self-government and long-hallowed property rights in land.

Of course, Lincoln believed, it was all to a worthy end. And this was what he tried to explain in the speech that would be the most quoted of his, or any, presidency.

In Lincoln’s day presidents put little reliance in public speeches. Their important statements were usually de – livered in writing. Prior to the advent of radio a president’s spoken words carried only as far as the sound of his voice, and since the vast majority of Americans would encounter those words in writing—in newspapers—it made sense to deliver them in writing in the first place.

But Lincoln was asked to say a few words at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. On arrival the evening of Nov. 18, he was treated to a dinner and musical performance by a military band. The audience demanded a speech. Lincoln declined, claiming “several substantial reasons,” and adding: “The most important of these is that I have no speech to make.” Amid laughter from the audience, he observed, “In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.”

“If you can help it!” an anonymous voice volunteered.

“It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all,” Lincoln rejoined.

The next day he said more than nothing, but much less than the ceremony’s main speaker. Edward Everett waxed florid and patriotic for two hours, leaving Lincoln mere minutes. But this was all he wanted, and all he needed for the message he intended to deliver.

Those few people present who had heard Lincoln speak from the White House window in the first wake of the July victories now caught echoes of his earlier comments. But for many of the rest, the opening line of his Gettysburg Address must have come as a surprise. The “four score and seven years” Lincoln cited carried the mental arithmeticians in the audience back not to 1787, the date of the Constitution, but to 1776, the moment of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln had sworn at his inauguration to uphold the Constitution, not the Declaration. Now he emphasized not the American Union, the political structure the Constitution had framed, but the American nation—the “new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—established by the Declaration.

“We are engaged in a great civil war,” he continued, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” By the eight words in the middle of this sentence, Lincoln lifted the current contest from a sectional fight to a universal struggle. Not merely America’s fate, but the fate of humanity, hung in the balance. Could freedom survive? Was equality more than an idle dream? Could humans govern themselves?

These were the stakes. And this was the solution to Lincoln’s crisis of conscience. Fighting for the Union allowed much, but fighting for humanity allowed almost anything. In fewer than 300 words and less than three minutes, Lincoln accomplished the remarkable feat of redefining not just the Civil War but the meaning of American history—and of justifying his actions on history’s behalf.

He meanwhile justified the actions of those who joined him in the struggle. Most of his 10,000 listeners that day, restive after hours of procession and speeches, and many unable to hear what he was saying, missed the significance of Lincoln’s rhetorical maneuver. But all who wished the Union well—all who prayed for the Union, who fought for the Union, who killed for the Union—would feel a surge of pride and relief upon reading Lincoln’s concluding promise: “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.”

H.W. Brands is a history professor at the University of Texas. His latest book is Traitor to His Class, a biography of Franklin Roosevelt.