The Jury Talks Back

11/19/2019

Gettysburg Address: 156 Years Ago Today

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dana @ 10:22 am

[guest post by Dana]

[Ed. Understanding that most readers have done their own extensive reading on Lincoln and this particular speech, consider this brief overview a jumping off point.]

Today is the 156th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. A little more than four months after one of the worst battles in the Civil War took place at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – a three-day battle in which the combined casualties reached a staggering 51,000 – President Abraham Lincoln marked the end of the ceremonies dedicating the battlefield cemetery with a short, 272-word speech known as the Gettysburg Address.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do.

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 hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to 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 these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, 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 has been previously noted, it was not a well received speech at the time, and it wasn’t until quite some time later that it got a most-deserved second look:

In the days that followed Abraham Lincoln’s 272-word speech to thousands of onlookers in this small Pennsylvania farm town, few newspapers in the country immediately reported on the speech.

When they did, explains historian Michael Kraus, it was mostly dour examination, filled with misquotes of the 16th president’s words.

“There were a lot of mistakes in those first reports. Words weren’t heard well, order was mixed up. The speech didn’t appear in every newspaper the next day, or the next day, or the next day,” Kraus said from his artifact-filled basement office at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, where he serves as the curator.

When it finally did, the reviews were sharply critical.

“A paper in Boston ripped it to shreds; so did other papers across the North,” said Kraus.

Even the local Harrisburg paper, the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, dismissed it as mindless gibberish. “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of,” it opined.

In truth, it took decades for anyone to think much of the speech, or even think of it all.

“It wasn’t until well over a quarter-century later that it began to emerge in the American psyche across the country that this speech was more than a speech, it defined who we were for eternity,” said Kraus days before the 155th anniversary of a speech that took less than two minutes to give and nearly a 100 years to reach the reverence it holds today.

Interestingly, President Lincoln was not the featured speaker that day. Rather, he was an afterthought:

The invited featured speaker at the dedication was Edward Everett, the former president of Harvard College and one of the 19th century’s most celebrated orators. Everett spoke for two hours. Following his long presentation, Lincoln, in a black suit, tall silk hat and white gloves, spoke for two minutes, delivering a powerful speech that has remained one of the most inspirational and eloquent expressions in the English language. From the time of its first delivery, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has stood as an American touchstone, offering comfort and inspiration to the living by honoring the sacrifices of the dead.

Lincoln formulated the Gettysburg Address with great thought, but the brevity of the President’s address was in such contrast to Everett’s long oration that the audience was surprised and slow to respond, so that Lincoln feared his effort had fallen short. Everett afterwards wrote to the President: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as close to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Everett’s own Gettysburg address can be found here. And here is a wonderful thread about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address.

–Dana

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