154 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Washington. He’d been asked to make “a few dedicatory remarks” on the following day, dedicating the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg where, even now, workmen labored to re-inter the dead from the carnage of July.
Lincoln was the President of a country torn by Civil War, a war so terrible that, before it was over, would kill more Americans than all the wars from the Declaration of Independence to the Global War on Terror, combined.
Lincoln had been feeling poorly the day of the train ride, telling his secretary, John Hay, that he was feeling weak. He would feel worse over the course of that day, and Hay noted that Lincoln’s face was ‘a ghastly color’ the day of the address. No one knew it at the time, but Lincoln was in the early stages of smallpox.
His was not the keynote address. That would be a 13,607 word, two-hour oration delivered by Boston politician Edward Everett.
After Everett’s speech, photographers thought they had all the time in the world to prepare and set their glass plates. They did not, and no photograph exists of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address.
The 16th President of the United States stepped to the rostrum and delivered 271 words, in ten sentences. In just over two minutes, Lincoln captured an entire vision of where the country was at that moment in time, where it had been, and where it was going.
Lincoln himself thought his speech a flop, but Everett later wrote to him, saying “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 were haters then, as now, as always prepared to fire their little spitballs. The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s remarks as “silly, flat and dish-watery utterances”, but it all came out in the end. Lincoln’s address went into history as one of the finest pieces of English language prose since Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, at Agincourt. The names of the haters at the Chicago Times, are all but forgotten.
Oddly, we do not know the precise form in which the President delivered his address. Lincoln wrote his own speeches, lining out words and writing into margins as he developed his thought process. That working copy is lost.
There are five known copies of the Gettysburg address, written in Lincoln’s own hand, each varying slightly in wording and punctuation. He wrote two after the address, giving them to his two personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. He sent one to Edward Everett early in 1864, and another to George Bancroft, the former Secretary of the Navy turned historian. Lincoln wrote a fifth copy, known as the Bliss copy, for Colonel Alexander Bliss, in February, upon learning that the Bancroft version was unsuitable for publication, due to its having been written on both sides of the same page.
Lincoln signed, dated and titled the Bliss copy. This is the version inscribed on the South wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
One of my stranger childhood notions, was the idea that sounds never went away, they just diminished as they spread outward, like ripples on a pond. If that was true (thought my nine-year-old self), could we not somehow capture and listen to the Gettysburg address, as it was actually delivered?
It’s a funny thing how some ideas, even the goofy ones, never completely die away.