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Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, 150 Years Later: Minimal in Word, Monumental in Impact

By November 19, 2013 February 12th, 2016 No Comments

In July 1863, our nation suffered its bloodiest moment. The Battle of Gettysburg killed, captured or wounded more than 50,000 soldiers. It was a turning point in the Civil War – inspiring one of the greatest speeches in American history while reframing the future of our great country.

In two articles published today, historian and Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn explains why Abraham Lincoln’s now famous Gettysburg Address, spoken at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg 150 years ago this week, still resonates so powerfully in the American collective consciousness. This “deceptively simple speech,” she says, laid the foundation for great American leadership; it stressed the importance of freedom, emphasized the uniquely American ideals of equality for all, and helped shape America’s future.

“Over time, we have built a national iconography around figures who resemble Lincoln-like orators,” Koehn wrote in The Washington Post. “The art of the American speech – an invocation to take the country back to its fundamental purpose while also forward into a future defined by renewed, clarified dedication to this purpose – premiered on that hill in Gettysburg. It has become a signature of leadership in this nation ever since.”

Without Lincoln’s two-minute speech, Koehn argues, there would be no Martin Luther King, Jr., standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, proclaiming “I have a dream.” John F. and Robert Kennedy would not have taken their first steps toward civil rights legislation. And America would not have elected its first black president.

Though Lincoln would not fully understand how his words ultimately inspired an awakening throughout the nation, Koehn strongly believes his words “have become, and remain, a symbol of America’s progress and promise.”

Read Koehn’s articles in The Washington Post and WGBH Boston Public Radio’s website, which also includes a link to her recent radio interview about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. You might also be interested in reading Koehn’s New York Times article, “Lincoln’s School of Management.”