Commentary: Time to re-read the Gettysburg address | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Time to re-read the Gettysburg address

Nov 12, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Seven score and ten years ago on Nov. 19, Abraham Lincoln delivered his now famous Gettysburg Address. That speech, along with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and John F. Kennedy’s inauguration address are arguably the best speeches in American history.

Ironically, Lincoln was not asked to give the “Address.” That honor went to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Everett who was considered the finest orator of the day. Lincoln was only requested to give some short remarks – and even that invitation came far into the planning of the event: a ceremony dedicating the National Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg after the July 1-3, 1863, Civil War battle that was fought there.

The three-day conflict was the bloodiest of the war with more than 50,000 casualties including nearly 8,000 killed. The battle was a Northern victory that ended Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. And although the war would continue another 21 long and bloody months, the Union triumph in this sleepy Pennsylvania town, along with the capture of Vicksburg, Miss., the following day, sealed the fate of the Confederacy.

After the fight, many of the dead were left in the open fields or buried in shallow graves. To honor the men who so nobly fought and died there, Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin had 17 acres of the battlefield purchased so the dead could be properly buried.

Even though President Lincoln wasn’t asked to make some “dedicatory remarks” until after the main speaker had negotiated a date that worked for him, Lincoln didn’t feel slighted. He was so busy running the country and the war that he was more concerned that he would not have time to adequately compose even a few words to consecrate the grounds.

One of the myths surrounding Lincoln’s address is that he wrote it on an envelope while traveling to Gettysburg. Not true! Lincoln always composed his speeches very thoroughly and carefully. And in this case he had an important message for the country. It is likely that it was largely written before he boarded the train to Gettysburg.

The first speaker at the ceremony was the Rev. T.H. Stockton, who delivered the opening prayer. Then Sen. Everett delivered his address in which he outlined how the war had begun. He also described the details of the three-day battle and denounced the idea of state sovereignty. Everett’s speech took two HOURS to deliver. But in the 1800s long speeches were normal and expected. This was before movies, professional sports and Oprah, so political speeches passed as entertainment. The most interesting thing about Everett’s oration was not its length but the fact that he had memorized the entire 13,607 words. It’s amazing what the human brain was capable of before television turned it into mush.

And, although some believed that the senator’s speech lacked passion, most praised it. Benjamin French, the commissioner of Public Buildings was quick to laud Everett’s speech claiming that it “could not be surpassed by mortal man.” He was proved very wrong a few minutes later when Lincoln spoke.

After Everett finished, President Lincoln stood, pulled out his two pieces of paper, put on his steel rimmed glasses and began reading. Lincoln didn’t speak for two hours. In fact, he only spoke for two MINUTES as his speech was only 10 sentences long (272 words). Even the opening prayer was longer.

There is no photograph of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address as the photographer did not have enough time to set up before Lincoln sat down.

When Lincoln was finished, the throng of 15,000 didn’t know how to react and many in attendance said that the applause following Lincoln’s speech was ”formal and perfunctory.” They seemed astonished that the speech was so brief. Lincoln, who feared that the audience was dissatisfied, turned to Ward Lamon, his bodyguard, and confided, “It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.”

Afterward, some agreed with the president’s self-assessment. A London Times correspondent wrote that it would not be easy to come up with anything more “dull and commonplace” than Lincoln’s speech. In the North reaction to Lincoln’s address was split along partisan lines. The Democratic leaning Chicago Times wrote that Lincoln had “with ignorant rudeness” insulted the memory of those who had died there. The Patriot and Union, a Harrisburg, Pa., newspaper, completely missed the mark, writing that Lincoln’s remarks were silly and "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." Oh, how wrong they were.

Many others thought the speech was masterful. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that not many who would read the president’s remarks would “do it without a moistening of the eye and a swelling of the heart.” The Chicago Tribune also extolled the speech, writing that "the dedicating remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.” Even Sen. Everett sent Lincoln a note that said, "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”.

It was, and still is, a masterpiece which reads much like a poem. In his 10 sentences, Lincoln dedicated the battlefield, honored the men who had fought there and explained what the North was fighting for. He also renewed the Northern effort to win the war and reminded the nation of the founding fathers' proposition that all men are created equal. In his speech, Lincoln transformed the conflict from one of saving the Union to a battle for both union and freedom.

It is interesting that 150 years after Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the greatest speeches in history, we are now subjected to mindless speeches such as Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent 21 hour filibuster. In that rant Cruz discussed, among other things, Darth Vader, Duck Dynasty and Dr. Seuss’s "Green Eggs and Ham." Fortunately I didn’t hear his speech but I’m sure that:

I would not have liked it in my house / I would not have liked it with a mouse / I would not have liked it here or there / I would not have liked it anywhere

Hopefully, the world will little note nor long remember Cruz’s filibuster but it surely will never forget what Lincoln said at Gettysburg.

The contrast between Lincoln’s remarkable speech and Cruz’s harangue is stark. As we look back at Lincoln’s masterpiece one has to wonder, where has the eloquence gone?

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to reread the Gettysburg address in anticipation of its anniversary. It is altogether proper and fitting that you should do this.

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.

John C. Wade, Wildwood, is a chief financial officer, amateur historian and self-proclaimed expert on the U.S. presidents. Wade is on a number of not-for-profit boards in St Louis including the World Affairs Council and Meds & Foods for Kids. He is a Churchill Fellow and on the board of governors of the National Churchill Museum.