If filmmaker Ken Burns had his way, all Americans would honor Tuesday's 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address — in both old-fashioned and new-fashioned ways.
First, they would memorize Abraham Lincoln's most famous speech; then they would recite it on video for posterity, part of a Burns project to extend Lincoln's historic call for freedom and equality.
"It's our catechism," Burns said. "It's our marching orders."
Burns, whose next film spotlights the Gettysburg Address, has created a website — learntheaddress.org — that enables people to post videos of the speech immortalized on a marble wall at the Lincoln Memorial.
An award-winning documentarian whose works include The Civil War (1990), Burns said the Gettysburg project was inspired by a boys school in Vermont that requires students to learn the address. The project is being produced in conjunction with PBS; it will run through April 15, 2014, when Burns' 90-minute documentary The Address will air on PBS stations nationwide.
Lincoln's speech came on Nov. 19, 1863, dedicating a cemetery to those who died at the battle of Gettysburg 4½ months before.
In little more than two minutes, Lincoln previewed the end of the Civil War and challenged the nation to reunite and live up to the ideal of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence — a struggle that is ongoing.
The videos on learntheaddress.com range from college students to singer Taylor Swift to comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert, who donned a stovepipe hat and Lincoln-like fake beard for the occasion.
The Gettysburg Address project has produced a mash-up of the presidents and various celebrities reading brief segments of the speech.
In a phone interview, Burns said he is especially honored to have secured readings from the five living U.S. presidents: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
"We've got so many notables, we've got to do two or three mash-ups," Burns said.
Burns' forthcoming film combines a history of the speech with the story of the Greenwood School in Putney, Vt., where students ages 11 to 17 are required to memorize and recite Lincoln's great work.
The students at Greenwood have learning challenges – dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and the like – but the Gettysburg Address is a requirement. "It's a minefield for these boys," Burns said, "and yet they do it."
A resident of rural New Hampshire, Burns said he had long known about the school in neighboring Vermont. He became professionally interested in Greenwood School after it asked him about 10 years ago to be a judge at a Gettysburg Address event.
"I wept at the struggle and the beauty" of the students' efforts, Burns said.
Written by Lincoln himself, the Gettysburg Address features one of history's great openings: "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."
A score is 20 years; Lincoln was noting that it had been 87 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which stated that "all men are created equal."
Yet the young United States still allowed slavery — and denied women the right to vote, by the way — and the country descended into civil war.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln called on the nation to honor the fallen of the Civil War by living up to the call for equality.
"He essentially doubled down on the Declaration of Independence," Burns said.
In his equally famous closing, Lincoln spoke of "the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here 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."
That task is still with us, Burns said. He cited the death of Trayvon Martin and the subjects of another of his film projects, The Central Park Five, a group of men wrongly convicted of assault and rape.
Burns said memorizing the Gettysburg Address can help bring a measure of unity to a nation undergoing a "fractured time" politically.
The videos on "learntheaddress.org" include recitations by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. There are appearances by liberal MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow and conservative Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly.
Referring to the national motto of e pluribus unum — "out of many, one" — Burns said, "This can be something that reminds us we have too much pluribus and not enough unum."
In addition to The Address, Burns is working on a seven-part documentary series about three other pivotal occupants of the White House: the Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor.
Other Burns projects include upcoming biographies of Jackie Robinson and Ernest Hemingway and a future multipart documentary on the Vietnam War.
Tuesday, the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Burns and a camera crew will be at the battlefield site, filming people as they recite Lincoln's speech and hoping they remember its lessons.
Burns said, "By memorizing it, it will be internalized."