On this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was four and a half months after the devastating battle, and it was a foggy, cold morning. Lincoln arrived about 10 a.m. Around noon, the sun came out as the crowds gathered on a hill overlooking the battlefield. A military band played, a local preacher offered a long prayer, and the headlining orator, Edward Everett, spoke for more than two hours. Everett described the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once. When Everett finished, Lincoln spoke.
Now considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address ran for just over two minutes, fewer than 300 words, and only 10 sentences. It was so brief, in fact, that many of the 15,000 people that attended the ceremony didn’t even realize that the president had spoken, because a photographer setting up his camera had momentarily distracted them. The next day, Everett told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
There are several versions of the speech, and five different manuscript copies; they’re all slightly different, so there’s some argument about which is the “authentic” version. Lincoln gave copies to both of his private secretaries, and the other three versions were re-written by the president some time after he made the speech. The Bliss Copy, named for Colonel Alexander Bliss, is the only copy that was signed and dated by Lincoln, and it’s generally accepted as the official version for that reason. The Bliss text, our poem today, is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial:
by Abraham Lincoln
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.
“Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln. Public Domain. https://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/twa-the-writers-almanac-for-november-19-2021/
One of the reasons the address by the President of the divided States of America is now considered “one of the greatest speeches in American history” is its brevity. ‘Back in the day’ other POTUS spent hours speaking, something for which politicians are infamous. Consider the fate of the ninth POTUS:
The president who served the shortest period of time after being elected to office was William Henry Harrison. Harrison was president for only 30 days, 12 hours and 32 minutes before keeling over at age 68. The circumstances under which President Harrison, the first ever to die in office, died are disputed until this day.
Harrison was elected in 1840 running as a rugged, tested and weathered war hero. The day that Harrison was sworn into office was rainy and cold, and to make matters worse, the newly elected president chose to deliver his entire 8,444-word speech to the assembled crowd (and this was after it had been edited for length by a friend). The speech, which still ranks as the longest inaugural speech in American history, took two hours to read. Perhaps this was not the smartest choice in retrospect. Also not so smart of him: refusing to wear a hat or even a coat in the pouring rain.
A month later he was dead of pneumonia, which he may have contracted while he was savoring every moment of his inauguration day out in the rain. It’s unclear whether he came down with the illness at the inauguration or afterwards, but what is known is that the cures of the day, which included opium, snakes and caster oil.
His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, later became the 23rd president of the United States. On the day that the younger Harrison was sworn in, he reportedly wore a full suit of leather armor— just in case. He lived on to serve a complete term, although later ironically died of pneumonia as well. (https://forgottenhistoryblog.com/the-9th-us-president-died-of-pneumonia-which-he-may-have-caught-at-his-own-inauguration-ceremony/)
There have been many critics of the short speech given at Getttysburg.
My Great-Great-Grandfather Hated the Gettysburg Address. Now He’s Famous For It
It’s hard to imagine anyone could pan Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, but one cantankerous reporter did just that
November 18, 2013
Late last week, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper, now called the Patriot-News, issued a tongue-in-cheek retraction of its 150-year-old snub of President Abraham Lincoln’s heralded Gettysburg Address. The editorial page informed its readers:
“Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”
The editors mused that their predecessors had likely been “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink.” Waiving the statute of limitations, the newspaper ended its announcement in time-honored fashion: “The Patriot-News regrets the error.” The news was picked up by a wide swath of publications, but none were more surprising than the appearance of a “Jebidiah Atkinson” on “Saturday Night Live:”
But of course there was no “Jebidiah Atkinson.” The author of the thumbs-down review was Oramel Barrett, editor of what was then called the Daily Patriot and Union. He was my great-great-grandfather.
The “few appropriate remarks” President Abraham Lincoln was invited to deliver at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg are remembered today as a masterpiece of political oratory. But that’s not how Oramel viewed them back in 1863.
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President,” he wrote in his newspaper. “For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”
My ancestor’s misadventure in literary criticism has long been a source of amusement at family gatherings (and now one for the entire nation.) How could the owner-editor of a daily in a major state capital have been so utterly tone deaf about something this momentous?
Oddly enough, Oramel’s put-down of the Gettysburg Address—though a minority view in the Union at the time—didn’t stand out as especially outrageous at the time. Reaction to the speech was either worshipful or scornful, depending on one’s party affiliation. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln, while the Democrats were the more or less loyal opposition (though their loyalty was often questioned).
Here’s the Chicago Times, a leading Democratic paper: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
It wasn’t just the Democrats. Here’s the Times of London: “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”
In the South, naturally, Lincoln was vilified as a bloodthirsty tyrant. But his opponents in the North could be almost as harsh. For years, much of the Democratic press had portrayed him as an inept, awkward, nearly illiterate bumpkin who surrounded himself with sycophants and responded to crises with pointless, long-winded jokes. My ancestor’s newspaper routinely referred to Lincoln as “the jester.”
Like Oramel Barrett, those who loathed Lincoln the most belonged to the radical wing of the Democratic Party. Its stronghold was Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The radical Democrats were not necessarily sympathetic to the Confederacy, nor did they typically oppose the war—most viewed secession as an act of treason, after all. Horrified by the war’s gruesome slaughter, however, they urged conciliation with the South, the sooner the better.
To the Lincoln-bashers, the president was using Gettysburg to kick off his re-election campaign—and showing the poor taste to do so at a memorial service. According to my bilious great-great-grandfather, he was performing “in a panorama that was gotten up more for the benefit of his party than for the glory of the Nation and the honor of the dead.”
Worse, for Lincoln’s opponents, was a blatant flaw in the speech itself. In just 10 sentences, it advanced a new justification for the war. Indeed, its first six words—”Four score and seven years ago”—were enough to arouse the fury of Democratic critics.
A little subtraction shows that Lincoln was referring not to 1787, when the Constitution, with its careful outlining of federal rights and obligations (and tacit acceptance of slavery), was drawn up, but to 1776, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”
The Union war effort had always been aimed at defeating Southern states that had rebelled against the United States government. If white Southerners wanted to own black slaves, many in the North felt, that was not an issue for white Northern boys to die for.
Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the start of 1863. Now, at Gettysburg, he was following through, declaring the war a mighty test of whether a nation dedicated to the idea of personal liberty “shall have a new birth of freedom.” This, he declared, was the cause for which the thousands of Union soldiers slain here in July “gave the last full measure of devotion.” He was suggesting, in other words, that the troops had died to ensure that the slaves were freed.
To radical Northern Democratics, Dishonest Abe was pulling a bait-and-switch. His speech was “an insult” to the memories of the dead, the Chicago Times fumed: “In its misstatement of the cause for which they died, it was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.” Worse, invoking the Founding Fathers in his cause was nothing short of libelous. “They were men possessing too much self-respect,” the Times assured its readers, “to declare that negroes were their equals.”
Histories have generally played down the prevalence of white racism north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The reality was that Northerners, even Union soldiers battling the Confederacy, had mixed feelings about blacks and slavery. Many, especially in the Midwest, abhorred abolitionism, which they associated with sanctimonious New Englanders. Northern newspaper editors warned that truly freeing the South’s slaves and, worse, arming them would lead to an all-out race war.
That didn’t happen, of course. It took another year and a half of horrific fighting, but the South surrendered on the North’s terms—and by the time Lee met Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, both houses of Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery. With Lincoln’s assassination just six days later, the criticism ceased. For us today, Lincoln is the face on Mount Rushmore, and the Gettysburg Address one of the greatest speeches ever delivered.
Doug Stewart also wrote about his cantankerous great-great-grandfather, Oramel Barrett, in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/my-great-great-grandfather-hated-the-gettysburg-address-150-years-later-hes-famous-for-it-180947746/)
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, If He Had Been More Honest
Gary North – January 06, 2021
At the ceremony honoring half of the fallen dead at Gettysburg, Lincoln delivered a speech justifying the slaughter. It became the most memorable speech in American history — surely the most famous Presidential speech. I had to memorize it in the fifth grade in 1952, in the town of Marietta, Ohio.
We need to remember it for what it really was: a political speech. Political speeches are not noted for their full disclosure. So, I have re-written it. Here is the Gettysburg Address, decoded in terms of Republican Party politics in the fall of 1863.
Here is the text.
Back in 1776, a group of regional politicians launched an illegal revolt in North America to create a far more lucrative tax jurisdiction, which was then sold to the voters by the marketing slogan of “liberty.” It was officially dedicated to the proposition that all males are created equal, other than kidnapped Africans and their descendants.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this tax jurisdiction, or any tax jurisdiction so justified and so marketed, can long endure, especially in the face of another group of regional politicians who are trying to pull off a similar stunt in the name of the same slogan.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for members of the Union Army who here gave their lives, that this tax jurisdiction might expand. 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 sanctify this ground. Half of 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 half of those 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 jurisdiction, under penalty of perjury, shall have a new birth of revenues, and that government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations, shall not perish from the earth. (https://www.garynorth.com/public/21752.cfm)