Sunday, April 05, 2009

Believe It Or Not: The Strange But True Story of The Gettysburg Address

In the fewer than three minutes that it took Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address, it invoked the principles that made American great, redefined the Civil War as a struggle for freedom and subsumed the cherished notion of state's rights, but the speech was for all intents and purposes an afterthought on the day it was given and remained so into the next century.

The star attraction that brisk November day in 1863 some fourth months after the Union defeated the Confederacy in the Battle of Gettysburg was Edward Everett, arguably the greatest orator of the time.

Everett spoke for two hours and he himself later joked at its length compared to Lincoln's brevity, but the 16,000 or so people who gathered in the town of 2,500 had not traveled great distances for anything less than epic speechifying and Everett delivered.

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The back story of the run-up to the speeches is comical.

Everett and the president decamped at the home of wealthy attorney David Wills on their arrival, but he had invited nearly 40 people to stay with him in cramped quarters normally occupied by himself and only four others.

As the guests of honor, Everett (photo, left) and Lincoln each got their own beds while everyone else had to make do. For most of them, that meant staying up all night and partying.

When Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain arrived late in the evening and demanded a bed, Willis told him he would have to bunk with Everett, but both the orator and the governor threw fits, Everett because he had a bladder problem and Curtain because he felt he should be treated better. Curtain stormed off into the night, his eventual place of rest lost to history.

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Interring the dead from the Battle of Gettysburg in a dignified manner became a priority for the people of the town near which it was fought. Initially, families of the dead were to be asked to pay for their burial on land the town planned to buy, but Wills objected and rallied support for a National Cemetery to be funded by the states.

A dedication ceremony was scheduled for October 23, but Everett replied that he needed more time to prepare a speech appropriate to the occasion. (The end result ran to 13,607 words compared to Lincoln's 269.) The ceremony was postponed until November 19, while Lincoln (photo, right) was invited almost as an afterthought and Wills' letter to him made it clear that he would only have a small part.

A goodly number of those assembled for the speechifying were veterans of the battle who gathered close to the simple stage erected in the cemetery. Also on hand were war widows, the governors of six of the 24 Union states and a Canadian politician.

Fewer than half of the bodies buried in field graves had been reintered.

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There are five copies of the Gettysburg Address that were written in Lincoln's own hand prior to November 19, 1863, and some historians believe that he drew on Pericles' Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War as was described by the Greek historian Thucydides.

Contrary to popular belief, Lincoln neither completed the address while on a train en route to Gettysburg nor wrote it on the back of an envelope.

In addition to four earlier drafts, the fifth and the one that the president read from is on display in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, but it is the so-called Bliss Version, a copy of the speech that Lincoln later wrote out for a friend, that is cited as the standard text because Lincoln wrote out the title and signed it.

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Although the Gettysburg Address has become arguably the most famous speech in American history, some newspapers did not even mention it, it received little or no applause depending upon the account, and in any event was soon overshadowed by Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation a week later, which was soon put to music and became a popular hymn.

In fact, while the speech became a significant part of Union veteran reunions, it did not became a central part of American culture until the early 20th century. The entire speech is carved into a stone cella on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial, which was dedicated in 1922.

There is some evidence that Lincoln thought that his address at Gettysburg was a failure and he certainly never considered it to be among his great accomplishments.

The president was nothing if not circumspect, so it is difficult to ascertain whether this was so, but I tend to believe it was because when Everett later sent him a letter praising the speech that he made a point of showing around.

Wrote Everett: "In a few words you did much better than I did in two hours."

Indeed he did.

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