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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lincoln, the Lower Billing, and Three Minutes For the Ages

The Gettysburg Address

President Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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 battle-field 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.

As history would have it, sometimes something seemingly too simple and unworthy of note at the time eventually is remembered as monumental and iconic. With its economy, eloquence, and straightforward language, the Gettysburg Address represents such skilled oratory, as, in time, people recognized it as one of the most important speeches delivered at any occasion in American history. The Gettysburg Address has become shining rhetorical proof of the design axiom, "Less is more."

Historian James McPherson, said Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address stands as "the world's foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them."

Was the address a product of casual genius, a divine inspiration, or both? You decide.

The Dedication

As after previous Civil War battles, thousands of soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1–3, 1863, were quickly buried, many in poorly marked graves. In the months that followed, however, local attorney David Wills spearheaded efforts to create a national cemetery at Gettysburg.

Wills and the Gettysburg Cemetery Commission originally set October 23 as the date for the cemetery's dedication, but delayed it to mid-November after their choice for speaker, Edward Everett, said he needed more time to prepare. Everett, the former president of Harvard College, former U.S. senator and former secretary of state, was at the time one of the country's leading orators.

It wasn't until November 2, just weeks before the event, that Wills extended an invitation to President Lincoln to attend the dedication, asking him "formally [to] set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks."

When he received the invitation to make the remarks at Gettysburg, Lincoln saw an opportunity to make a broad statement to the American people on the enormous significance of the war, and he prepared carefully.

Still, President Lincoln understood a definite gravity in the task of speaking at the somber dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, a Civil War battlefield where, in 1863, loss of life totaled 23,000 Union troops (more than one-quarter of the army's effective forces) and 28,000 Confederate troops (more than a third of Lee's army).

Lincoln was to deliver his speech there just four and a half months after this bloody and pivotal victory of the Union's Army of the Potomac over General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

It seemed no words could accurately account for the tremendous carnage of the battle and suffice as a just dedication of the cemetery as the grounds where lay friendly Union and enemy Confederate dead. The battle had involved the largest number of casualties of the entire American Civil War and is often described as the turning point of the conflict.

Mythic Composition?

Though long-running popular legend holds that he hastily wrote the speech on the back of an envelope on the train while traveling to Pennsylvania, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The historical record is actually fairly clear: Lincoln spent almost two weeks on the speech. This was typical for him.

As president, he often turned down opportunities to speak off the cuff, considering himself a poor impromptu speaker. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, remembered in 1891 that the speech was “carefully considered.”

On November 15, three days before leaving for Gettysburg, the president told Noah Brooks, a reporter friend, that the speech was “written but not finished.” John Nicolay, Lincoln’s other secretary, attested that the president did no writing on the jostling train (a tough task in those days) but wrote the speech’s final paragraph that night at the Gettysburg house where he was staying. The speech’s final draft, said Nicolay, was two pages: one in ink on White House stationery, and a one in pencil on plain blue paper. No train, no envelopes.

The myth dates back at least to 1866, when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that she had seen the president jot down the speech “in only a few moments,” and industrialist Andrew Carnegie later claimed that, as a young man, he himself had handed Lincoln the pencil he used to write the speech! In fact, Stowe was in Boston at the time and Carnegie in Pittsburgh, but their unlikely version of events was memorialized in a sappy—but wildly popular—1906 pamphlet about the speech, Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews’ “The Perfect Tribute.”

(Ken Jennings, “The Debunker: Did Lincoln Write the Gettysburg Address on an Envelope?", 2012)

Edward Everett

The Great Orator Edward Everett

Edward Everett had an exceptional career. He had accepted a faculty appointment in Greek literature at Harvard. Since he was only 21 at the time and had only a Master's degree, the university sent him to Europe for two years of further study. He completed a Ph.D. in Germany before returning to Harvard in 1819.

Before speaking at Gettysburg, Everett had served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1825-1835); four (one-year) terms as Massachusetts governor (1836-1839); four years as ambassador to England (1841-1845); Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore; and one term in the U.S. Senate (1854-1860). In the mid-1840s, he had taken a break from politics to serve as president of Harvard.

Everett's public service had given him many opportunities to demonstrate his power as a public speaker, and his orations became the stuff of legend. Long speeches were customary and expected then. Everett, a master, could hold forth for several hours with such skill and drama that his listeners lost all track of time.

In the weeks before the dedication, Everett had immersed himself in military reports, researching and reconstructing every aspect of the three-day battle so that he could re-create it, step by awful step, for his listeners. He strove, as always, to be an accurate historian and to stir the emotions of the audience.

Everett had delivered memorable speeches commemorating Revolutionary battlefields at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill; now, as featured speaker, he was expected to find the words to dignify and consecrate Gettysburg.

After preparing meticulously and producing a text of his speech, once at the podium Everett customarily set the manuscript aside and spoke from memory. On the morning of November 19 with an audience of some 15,000 people at hand, Everett began his two-hour oration on the Battle of Gettysburg and its significance:

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

Everett continued his speech, and as was customary, it went on and on. True to his habit, he sought to elevate the oration by invoking comparisons to Greek antiquity. In his lengthy speech, he relived the battle and denounced the enemy. Many in the crowd were moved to tears.

(“Edward Everett, Dictionary of American Biography and Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, 1992)

Lincoln's Brief Address

After the long Everett oratory, Lincoln then rose to the podium. He spoke for less than two minutes, and the entire speech was only 272 words long. Lincoln's voice was high to the point of shrillness, and his Kentucky accent offended some eastern sensibilities. But Lincoln derived an advantage from his high tenor voice... he knew a good deal about rhythmic delivery and meaningful inflections. Lincoln's text was polished, his delivery emphatic in contrast to Everett's sweet and expertly modulated tones.

Above all it's worth noting that Lincoln composed the address without the aid of speechwriters or advisers. As Fred Kaplan observed in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (HarperCollins, 2008), "Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached."

(Richard Nordquist, “Lincoln's Words at Gettysburg,”

Beginning by invoking the image of the founding fathers and the new nation, Lincoln eloquently expressed his conviction that the Civil War was the ultimate test of whether the Union created in 1776 would survive, or whether it would "perish from the earth." The dead at Gettysburg had laid down their lives for this noble cause, he said, and it was up to the living to confront the "great task" before them: ensuring that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The essential themes and even some of the language of the Gettysburg Address were not new; Lincoln himself, in his July 1861 message to Congress, had referred to the United State as "a democracy–a government of the people, by the same people."

The radical aspect of the speech, however, began with Lincoln's assertion that the Declaration of Independence–and not the Constitution–was the true expression of the founding fathers' intentions for their new nation. At that time, many white slave owners had declared themselves to be "true" Americans, pointing to the fact that the Constitution did not prohibit slavery; according to Lincoln, the nation formed in 1776 was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

In an interpretation that was radical at the time–but is now taken for granted–Lincoln's historic address redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.

The day after the dedication, Everett was quick to acknowledge the greatness of Lincoln's brief speech that followed his own. He wrote to the president praising the "eloquent simplicity and appropriateness" of his remarks. Everett said: "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

Lincoln sent an immediate and gracious response: "In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little that I did say was not entirely a failure."

In retrospect, both men had blessed the fields of Gettysburg with two, fitting, historical orations. Yet, Lincoln's brief masterpiece survived the day to live on in American history.

The Public Reaction

On the day following the dedication ceremony, newspapers all over the country reprinted Lincoln's speech along with Everett's. The President's venerated address was not universally admired at the time. Eyewitnesses reported that there was silence when Lincoln finished, followed by sparse applause, once described by the late historian Shelby Foote as "barely polite." After all, the speech ended so soon after it had begun, hardly anyone realized that the delivery had actually stopped.

Still, the tone of the remarks was so appropriate to the occasion. It hadn't been calculated to elicit the applause lines that presidential speechwriters seek today. (But, the speech was said to be interrupted by applause five times.) The reality was that no one was going to ask a President in the middle of a major, divisive war to take the time to write a big, political speech.

Opinion was generally divided along political lines, with Republican journalists praising the speech as a heartfelt, classic piece of oratory and Democratic ones deriding it as inadequate and inappropriate for the momentous occasion.

The Chicago Times, no friend of Lincoln's, described the address as "silly, flat and dishwatery utterances," while the New York Times, strongly Republican at the time, praised it. The president himself is said to have harbored doubts about the speech.

(Owen Edwards, “Gettysburg Address Displayed at Smithsonian,” 
Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008)

In the years to come, the Gettysburg Address would endure as arguably the most-quoted, most-memorized piece of oratory in American history. It continues to stand the test of time.

After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts wrote of the address:

"That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg...and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said 'the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.' He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it."

Remnants of the Original Gettysburg Address

Lincoln sent his fellow speaker, Edward Everett, a copy of the speech when Everett was assembling a book listing events at the battlefield dedication, to be sold for the benefit of wounded Union soldiers. The president wrote out by hand five copies of the address, two before the ceremony—historians aren't sure which of these is the copy from which Lincoln read at Gettysburg—and three afterward.

Lincoln's last handwritten copy, the only one signed by the president, was penned in March 1864, to be reproduced for a publication entitled Autograph Leaves of Our Country's Authors, which was also intended to raise money for the Union cause. One of the book's publishers, Alexander Bliss, kept the original document; it's the one now on display at the National Museum of American History.

This copy remained in the hands of the Bliss family until Oscar Cintas, Cuba's ambassador to the United States in the 1930s, bought it at auction in 1949 for $54,000 (roughly the cost of a substantial New York suburban house at the time). Cintas, who died in 1957, had willed the copy to the United States. It is usually displayed in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. The brief dedication made at Gettysburg, says Rubenstein, endures as nothing less than "a remarkable piece of literature."


Richard Nordquist, professor emeritus of rhetoric and English at Armstrong Atlantic State University and the author of two grammar and composition textbooks for college freshmen, tells us that words mattered to Lincoln – their meanings, their rhythms, their effects.

On February 11, 1859, two years before he became president, Lincoln delivered a lecture to the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College. His topic was “Discoveries and Inventions”:
“Writing--the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye--is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it--great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. . . .

“Its utility may be conceived, by the reflection that, to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.”
It's Lincoln biographer Fred Kaplan's belief that Lincoln was "the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders."

(Richard Nordquist, “Lincoln's Words at Gettysburg,”

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