November 19, 2007 marks the 144th anniversary of one of history's finest speeches, Abraham Lincoln's immortal Gettysburg Address. His 271 words continue to resonate in our collective consciousness even today. Yet no speech is shrouded as much in myth and legend as this one, the first prepared speech that Lincoln had given in nearly 2 1/2 years. The true story behind it is almost as fascinating as the words themselves.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
My posting titled "Gettysburg Letter To Lincoln" from November 9th, 2007 describes how the president was invited almost as an afterthought to the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. One of the myths that people believe is that Lincoln was the featured speaker at Gettysburg that day. In truth, the main address was presented by Edward Everett of Massachusetts, the leading orator of the day. His oration lasted for nearly 2 1/2 hours, while Lincoln's brief address took a little more than two minutes to deliver. Yet Lincoln's words remain immortal while Everett's have been forgotten by most.
Lincoln departed for Gettysburg the previous day on November 18, 1863. The trip was a long and arduous one in those days, taking some 16 hours by rail from Washington, D.C., a journey which is little more than two hours today. Probably the most popular legend holds that Lincoln wrote his Address on the back of an envelope while on the train trip to Gettysburg, a story that is almost certainly not true. Lincoln was not a good extemporaneous speaker, as recorded by numerous witnesses to the various times he gave "off the cuff" remarks. Indeed, he politely refused to give an impromptu speech on July 7, 1863 at the celebration of the Union victory at Gettysburg. He addressed the crowd which had gathered outside the White House, and he admitted that "this is the....occasion for a speech. But I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion. ..Having said this much, I will now take the music." Other instances show us that Lincoln was awkward with public speeches when he was not fully prepared to do so. For this reason, it is very doubtful that Lincoln wrote the Address in its entirety during the ride to Gettysburg, in spite of some witnesses who later swore that he wrote the speech on the train.
However, it is true that as late as November 17, Lincoln admitted to James Speed, his Attorney General, that he was only half-finished with his speech for Gettysburg. He even confessed that he was laboring to find the proper words to convey what he wanted to at the ceremony. Lincoln showed a "rough draft" to Speed and apparently to other witnesses as well. This further disproves the legend of the writing on an envelope while on the train.
Lincoln Arrives At Gettysburg
After a long day of travel which included a few stops along the way, the presidential train arrived at Gettysburg at 5:00 p.m. on November 18th. Lincoln was escorted by various dignitaries to the David Wills home, where he was to spend the night. David Wills was the primary organizer of the dedication ceremonies and it was he who originally invited Lincoln. There are no known records of anything Lincoln might have said upon his first tour of the village. It can be imagined that he was exhausted from the long journey and perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the crowds as well. No doubt he was moved to be at the scene of the horrendous battle which had taken place just a few months previous.
Various witnesses give us some certainty that Lincoln was still not finished with his speech. It's known, for example, that as late as 11:00 p.m. that evening, Lincoln went to the house where his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, was staying. Lincoln read him the speech, but it is not known if the Secretary offered suggestions or even comments.
Dedication Day - November 19th, 1863
Lincoln departed for the ceremonies at 10:00 a.m. on the morning of November 19th. The crowd was huge, some estimates placing it at nearly 100,000 people. We'll of course never know for certain. Lincoln was on horseback and wearing a dress suit, complete with a mourning ribbon or band on his famous stovepipe hat. Although he was at first upbeat, as he approached the stand erected for the ceremonies, he became obviously more sad and lost in thought.
The ceremony itself began with the perfunctory introductions, a prayer or two, and some letters read from people who could not attend. At this point, Edward Everett launched into the main oration, a speech which must have seemed to its listeners as having lasted for an eternity, take just under two hours to deliver. Reactions to this "other Gettysburg Address" were decidedly mixed and were considered by some to have been disappointing considering that the nation's leading orator had presented it.
At long last, it was Abraham Lincoln's turn in the ceremonies and as he arose, he was greeted with great applause and enthusiasm. Then he began his speech with the immortal words that every school child must know: "Four score and seven years ago....." (the full text is here)
Lincoln's address was stunningly brief at only two minutes and 271 words in length. We know from eyewitness reports and newspaper stories that the reaction to his speech ranged from utter amazement at the brevity of his address to near "rapture" over it. For example, the Associated Press reporter was so enthralled that he ended up forgetting to take notes. Other newspapers were so far off on what was said they were almost comical. For this reason, Lincoln scholars and researchers to this day are not entirely sure what Lincoln's exact words were that day. While five copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's own handwriting are known to exist, they each differ slightly in certain areas, such as the use of "under God" in the closing.
Lincoln himself was quite upset with the speech, claiming that it "won't scour" (a Midwestern term of the day meaning it wasn't good) to his friend Ward Lamon. When Edward Everett offered his own congratulations, Lincoln halted him, and suggested they not speak further of it.
In the weeks and months which followed, the reputation of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address grew until upon further reflection by the public and newspapers, it became known as the true masterpiece it is. Lincoln provided some copies to people who requested them in order to sell as fundraisers for wounded Union soldiers. National papers of the day, such as "Harper's Weekly" the address was "the most perfect piece of American eloquence."
The Gettysburg Address Today
So what does (or should) Lincoln's Gettysburg Address mean for us today? Obviously, it's been required reading for generations of schoolchildren, in some cases being required for memorization. Entire books have been written about this speech, analyzing its meaning, dissecting its points, and claiming that through this speech, Lincoln actually gave force to a Second American Revolution.
For this blogger, at least, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is the embodiment of what America stands for (or SHOULD stand for): the rights and freedoms of all people in our great country, and that government must represent the collective will of "We, the People" In today's America, far too many politicians at the national, state, and local levels are beholden to the rich and powerful and have lost sight of the ordinary and powerless. Politicians at all levels of government should be required, in my opinion, to read, understand, and take to heart the finest speech in American history.
This posting used two primary sources. The first was Garry Wills' masterpiece, "Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America." Deservedly this book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The other source was Lincoln author and scholar Harold Holzer's article titled "A Few Appropriate Remarks" from the November 1988 issue of "American History Illustrated" magazine. His article is a highly detailed and informative re-telling of the story behind the Gettysburg Address. This article may be available only through back issue sites such as eBay or directly from the publisher.