The 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the speech Abraham Lincoln delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, comes next Sunday. In addition to being one of the most historically significant speeches ever delivered by a U.S. president, it’s also a stunning piece of writing: Lincoln’s phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was translated directly into the French Constitution, adopted in 1958; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called back to it in his “I Have A Dream” speech; it manages to be both very specifically of and about the time in which it was delivered, which was the middle of the Civil War, and utterly timeless.
For those reasons, it makes sense that documentarian and historian Ken Burns would be moved to honor the speech itself on its 150th anniversary. It also makes sense that perhaps the most effective way to do that is to hear those words, over and over, in voices that are familiar to us. To that end, the PBS website LearnTheAddress.org, in association with Burns’s forthcoming documentary The Address, features dozens of notable Americans–from Presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Carter and entertainers like Louis CK, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Whoopi Goldberg, Alyssa Milano, and Uma Thurman; to political pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow and other elected officials like Nancy Pelosi and Marco Rubio–delivering the address.
Watching a single video in the series is interesting, but watching a number of them highlights the importance of the words in the speech in a fascinating way: A president delivering the speech reminds us of the gravity of those words in the context in which they were originally delivered, while an unexpected voice like Conan O’Brien’s serves to help illustrate the power of the language alone. It’s a powerful project that might make all the times you got chills hearing Bill Pullman recite his Independence Day speech seem downright silly by comparison.