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 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 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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT