The History Thread Will Little Note Nor Long Remember

Welcome to this week’s History Thread! Thanks to Sheltie for subbing last week. It’s the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a short but powerful dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, about which many myths have grown up over the years.

  • Most common is the claim that Lincoln wrote the speech at the last minute; some even claim that he wrote it while traveling to Gettysburg for the ceremony. In fact, Lincoln scholars agree that he’d been working on the address for months beforehand. He did make a few last-minute alterations to the speech (notably, in the presence of a black freedman named William Johnson) but no more than tweaks in language. Fairly typical for a politician, or indeed any seasoned orator.
  • Lincoln was not the featured speaker. Edward Everett, a longtime Senator, Governor, etc. from Massachusetts was the keynote, delivering a two-plus hour recounting of the Battle of Gettysburg. Few remember his speech today, and the best that can be said about it is that it’s typical of the orotund, pompous style of the day. Presumably it played better when delivered live by a skilled orator.
  • Lincoln supposedly thought the speech was a failure, based on an anecdote recorded by his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon. Since Lamon’s recollections are often considered unreliable (at least by people not named Gore Vidal), it’s almost certainly untrue.
  • And, of course, the reaction. It’s common to claim the speech was not well-received at the time. Certainly the audience seemed surprised that Lincoln’s speech was so short. But Everett, at least, instantly recognized its importance: “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.” Otherwise, contemporary reaction was divided upon partisan lines, as one would expect for any political speech. Whether one thought it was “deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma” (Springfield (MA) Republican) or “silly, flat and dishwatery utterances” (Chicago Times) depended on your existing views of Lincoln.