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The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln's most famous speech, was delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, four and one-half months after the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Although Lincoln's carefully crafted address was secondary to other presentations that day, it ultimately was regarded as one of the great speeches in American History. By invoking the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln redefined the Civil War as not merely a struggle for Union, but instead as "a new birth of freedom" for the United States and its people.
How the event came to be
The Battle of Gettysburg, which was waged July 1–3, 1863, forever changed the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. With the number of dead (more than 7,000) nearly three times as large as the town's population, Gettysburg had much cleaning up to do. In addition to the human losses, several thousand horse carcasses added to the stench that made many townspeople violently ill in the weeks following the battle. The burial of dead in a dignified and orderly manner became a high priority. To that end, and under the direction of David Wills, a prosperous 32-year-old attorney, Pennsylvania purchased 17 acres (69,000 m²) for a cemetery to honor the dead from the summer's battle.
Wills's original date for the dedication of this new cemetery was Wednesday, September 23, 1863. To serve as his main speaker that day, Wills invited Edward Everett, a distinguished orator who had served as Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, Governor of Massachusetts and President of Harvard University. In reply, Everett told Wills and his organizing committee that he would be unable to prepare an appropriate speech in such a short period of time, and he requested that the date be postponed. The committee agreed, and the dedication was postponed until Thursday, November 19th. Almost as an afterthought, Wills asked President Abraham Lincoln to make a "few appropriate remarks". Lincoln's role in the event was secondary, akin to the modern tradition of inviting a VIP to cut the ribbon at a grand opening.
The program organized for that day by Wills and his committee was as follows:
Music, by Birgfield's Band
Prayer, by Reverend T.H. Stockton, D.D.
Music, by the Marine Band
Oration, by Hon. Edward Everett
Music, Hymn composed by B.B. French, Esq.
Dedicatory Remarks, by the President of the United States
Dirge, sung by Choir selected for the occasion
Benediction, by Reverend H.L. Baugher, D.D.
(Source: Wills, Garry, p. 34-35)
The ravages of war would still be evident in Gettysburg on November 19th, the day of the event. Not long after a well received two hour speech by Everett, which has now been largely forgotten, Lincoln spoke in his high-pitched, Kentucky accent for about two or three minutes. During his presentation, which we now know as his Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln would re-dedicate the nation to the war effort and to the ideal that no soldier at Gettysburg - North or South - had died in vain.
What was regarded as the "Gettysburg Address" that day was not the short speech delivered by President Lincoln, but rather the two hour oration delivered by Edward Everett. Everett was a renowned diplomat and scholar who was widely considered to be the nation's greatest orator of his time.
Everett's now-seldom-read, 13,609-word speech began:
- 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.
And ended two hours later with:
- But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates The Battles of Gettysburg.
In contrast, Lincoln's "few appropriate remarks" summarized the war in two or three minutes, in ten sentences, and in less than 300 words.
The five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address
Abraham Lincoln's "few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of the new Union cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 have long been regarded as one of the great speeches in American History. However, as historically significant as Lincoln's Gettysburg address would become, there still remains much disagreement among scholars as to its exact wording. Contemporary transcriptions published in newspaper accounts of the event and even copies handwritten by Lincoln himself differ in their wording, punctuation and structure.
There are five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address. Two of these manuscripts, which were eventually given by Lincoln to each of his two private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, were written around the time of his November 19th address, while the other three copies of the address were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after November 19th. The five known manuscript copies are as follows:
1) The Nicolay Copy. This copy, which Lincoln gave to his private secretary John Nicolay, is often called the "first draft" because it is believed to be the earliest copy that exists. Scholars disagree over whether the Nicolay copy was actually the reading copy Lincoln held at Gettysburg on November 19th. In 1894, Nicolay wrote that Lincoln had brought with him the first part of the speech, written in ink on Executive Mansion stationery, and that he had written the second page in pencil on lined paper before the dedication on November 19th. Matching folds are still evident on the two pages, suggesting it could be the copy that eyewitnesses say Lincoln took from his coat pocket and read at the ceremony. Others believe that the delivery text has been lost, because some of the words and phrases of the Nicolay copy do not match contemporary transcriptions of Lincoln's original speech. The words "under God," for example, are missing from the phrase "that this nation (under God) shall have a new birth of freedom...." In order for the Nicolay draft to have been the reading copy, Lincoln uncharacteristically would have had to depart from his written text in several instances. This copy of the Gettysburg Address remained in John Nicolay's possession until his death in 1901, when it passed to his friend and colleague John Hay.
2) The Hay Copy. With its existence first announced to the public in 1906, this version was described by Pulitzer Prize winning author Gary Wills as "the most inexplicable of the five copies Lincoln made." With numerous omissions and ^ inserts, this copy strongly suggests a text that was copied hastily, especially when one examines the fact that many of these omissions were critical to the basic meaning of the sentence, not simply words that would be added by Lincoln to strengthen or clarify their meaning. This copy, which is sometimes referred to as the "second draft," was made either a) on the morning of its delivery or b) shortly after Lincoln's return to Washington. Those that believe that it was completed on the morning of his address point to the fact that it contains certain phrases that are not in the first draft but are in the reports of the address as delivered and in subsequent copies made by Lincoln. It is probable, they conclude, that as stated in the explanatory note accompanying the original copies of the first and second drafts in the Library of Congress, that it was this second draft which Lincoln held in his hand when he delivered the address. (Source: Gettysburg National Military Park, or GNMP) Lincoln eventually gave this copy to his other personal secretary, John Hay, whose descendants donated both it and the Nicolay copy to the Library of Congress in 1916.
3) The Everett Copy. This copy was sent by President Lincoln at the request of Edward Everett, the orator who spoke at Gettysburg for two hours prior to Lincoln. Early in 1864, Mr. Everett requested that Lincoln send a copy of his speech so that Everett could collect all the speeches given at the Gettysburg dedication into one bound volume and sell it for the benefit of stricken soldiers at New York's Sanitary Commission Fair. The draft Lincoln sent became the third autograph copy, also known as the "Everett-Keyes" copy. It is now in the possession of the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, Illinois.
- Everett Copy Source: Virtual Gettysburg
4) The Bancroft Copy. This manuscript of the Gettysburg Address was written out by President Lincoln in April, 1864 at the request of George Bancroft, the most famous historian of his day. Mr. Bancroft planned to include this copy in "Autograph Leaves of Our Country's Authors," which he planned to sell at a Soldiers' and Sailors' Sanitary Fair in Baltimore. As this fourth copy was written on both sides of the paper, it proved unusable for this purpose, and Mr. Bancroft was allowed to keep it. This manuscript is the only one accompanied by a letter from Lincoln transmitting the manuscript and by the original envelope addressed and franked (i.e. signed for free postage) by Lincoln. This copy remained in the Bancroft family for many years until it was donated to the Carl A. Kroch Library at Cornell University. (Source: GNMP)
5) The Bliss Copy. Discovering that his fourth written copy intended for George Bancroft's "Autograph Leaves" could not be used, Mr. Lincoln wrote a fifth draft, which was accepted for the purpose requested. It is the only draft to which he affixed his signature. In all probability it was the last copy written by Lincoln, and because of the apparent care in its preparation it has become the standard version of the address. This draft was owned by the family of Colonel Alexander Bliss, Bancroft's stepson and publisher of "Autograph Leaves," and is now referred to as the "Bliss Copy." It now hangs in the Lincoln Room of the White House, a gift of Oscar B. Cintas, former Cuban Ambassador to the United States. (Source: GNMP)
- Bliss Copy, page 1 Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
- Bliss Copy, page 2 Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
- Bliss Copy, page 3 Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
In part because Lincoln provided a title and signed and dated this copy, The Bliss Copy has been the source for most facsimile reproductions of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. As Garry Wills, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America concluded, "it (The Bliss Copy) is stylistically preferable to others in one significant way: Lincoln removed 'here' from 'that cause for which they (here) gave . . . ' The seventh 'here' is in all other versions of the speech." Wills added, "[the fact] that he [Lincoln] was still making such improvements suggests that he was more concerned with a perfected text than with an 'original' one (however that is understood)."
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
What follows is the Bliss Copy (the last written copy) of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:
- 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 battlefield 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.
Comments of 1863
Most of the audience was watching the photographer, and the applause was delayed, scattered, and according to Foote (see below), "barely polite." The photographer felt cheated — the President had spoken at an important event, and he didn't get his photograph.
The next day the Chicago Sun-Times would observe, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."
Not all reviewers were as caustic as the one in Lincoln's adopted state of Illinois (Lincoln was born in Kentucky). The New York Times was complimentary. A Massachusetts paper printed the entire speech, commenting that it was "deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma." With time, Lincoln revised his opinion of "my little speech," and as noted above, he revised the text of the speech as well.
Initial public reaction to the speech was divided along partisan lines, but in a letter to Lincoln the next day, Everett praised the President for his eloquently concise speech saying, "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 was glad to know the speech was not a "total failure."
It is also often pointed out that Lincoln used the word nation five times, never union. He did not use the words slavery, nullification, or state's rights, but hearkened back to the Declaration of Independence, and the powerful statement that all men are created equal, and not the Constitution of 1789 with its implied recognition of slavery (the word slave does not appear in the 1789 Constitution; the "three fifths" clause simply says "three fifths of all other Persons.") At the time, the U.S. was split asunder and wasn't a union, and restoring the nation — not a collection of sovereign states — was paramount.
Today's analysis of the Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
- "Lincoln used the Gettysburg Address to reveal his thinking about the war, as a fight not only to save the Union, but also ultimately to establish freedom and equality for all under the law. Many historians think his simple and inspired words reshaped the nation by defining it as one people dedicated to equality."
- "President Lincoln had given his brief speech a lot of thought. He saw meaning in the fact that the Union victory at Gettysburg coincided with the nation's birthday; but rather than focus on the specific battle in his remarks, he wanted to present a broad statement about the larger significance of the war. He invoked the Declaration of Independence, and its principles of liberty and equality, and he spoke of 'a new birth of freedom' for the nation. In his brief address, he continued to reshape the aims of the war for the American people, transforming it from a war for Union to a war for Union and freedom."
- "In three minutes, in just 272 words, Lincoln explained what the war was about and why it had to continue. It was a fight, he said, to preserve and advance two fundamental American ideas: constitutional liberty and human equality. The nation created by the Constitution of 1787 was a permanent bond that could not be broken by a discontented minority. As Lincoln had said, in private, two years before: '[the war] must settle this question... whether in a free government, the minority have the right to break up the government when they chose. If they fail, it will go far to prove the incapacity of the people to govern.' At Gettysburg he reiterated this in soaring language. These men have died, and many more would die, he said, so that 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.' But what began as a struggle to preserve democracy, had become, as well, a war to insure what Lincoln called a 'new birth of freedom,' a government 'dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.' Lincoln did an amazing thing in his Gettysburg Address. He informally amended the Constitution, which tolerated slavery, pledging the nation to the idea of human equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Later in the war, when the country grew weary of the killing, Lincoln was pressured to drop emancipation as a condition of peace. He flatly refused."
1. In an oft repeated legend, after he concluded his address at Gettysburg, Lincoln turned to his bodyguard (Ward Lamon) and remarked that his speech, like a bad plow, "won't scour." According to Wills (1992), p. 36, this statement has no basis in fact and largely originates from the unreliable recollections of Lamon. Instead, Wills added, "(Lincoln) had done what he wanted to do (at Gettysburg)."
2. There is another persistent urban legend that Lincoln wrote the speech on the back of an envelope while riding on the train from Washington to Gettysburg. However, this is not true. Several early drafts are in existence, and Lincoln modified it both the night before and probably even as he spoke.
3. According to Gary Wills, it is a myth that the assembled at Gettysburg expected Lincoln to speak much longer than he did. The oft repeated story of the photographer at the event who was unable to take more photographs of the President because his speech was so short is also unlikely. Everyone there knew (or should have known) that the President's role was minor.
The continued popular knowledge of the address is reflected in the occasional use of phrases from it in pop culture, particularly the memorable opening line. For example:
- In the 1989 movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Abraham Lincoln is snatched from the past by the time-traveling title characters; presented before their high school, Lincoln delivers remarks beginning with the phrase, "4 score and 7 minutes ago" instead.
- In the 1999 movie Dick, Betsy and Arlene say "4 score and 7 years ago our forefather did something I don't know...".
External links and references
- Library of Congress, Washington, DC
- Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
- Gettysburg National Military Park Historical Handbook (GNMP)
- Wills, Garry: Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, ISBN 0-671-76956-1. (Winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.)
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1958, ISBN 0-394-49517-9.
- Edward Everett's complete "Gettysburg Oration"
- Lincoln urban legends debunked
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