Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “A Few Appropriate Remarks”

Ken Michaels
President Lincoln

Illustration commissioned by Local of 1 of the Amalgamated Lithographers of America, 1961. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

By Ken Michaels, Guest Writer

Editor’s note: Because Presidents’ Day is celebrated in February, we are honoring one of our nation’s greatest presidents and most skillful communicators.

In a recent article in the Poster, I mentioned that the words “I have a dream” are not to be found in the manuscript that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took to the lectern on Aug. 28, 1963, during the celebrated March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom demonstration. When he sensed that his prepared speech was missing the mark, he resorted to the “dream” speech, which he had given several times previously, albeit not on the national stage. The result was the speech now considered the greatest American speech of the 20th century.

Another speech, delivered one hundred years before King’s, has been declared the greatest speech in American history. It was given by President Abraham Lincoln not far from Frederick, Md., in Gettysburg, Pa., at the dedication of a soldier’s cemetery on a battlefield where 8,000 Civil War soldiers had died four months earlier. It is interesting that President Lincoln was not actually invited to give a speech at the ceremony. Event organizer David Wills, after consulting with Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, wrote the following note to Lincoln on Nov. 2, 1863 (the capitalizations are his):

“These Grounds will be consecrated and set apart to this sacred purpose by appropriate Ceremonies, on Thursday, November the 19th instant, - Hon. Edward Everett will deliver the oration. I am authorized by the Governor of the different States to invite You to be present, and participate in these Ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive. It is the desire that, after the Oration, You, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” [Johnson 2013, page 25]                                                                                                                           

Not only was Lincoln thus advised that he was not the principal speaker, but the invitation itself appears to have been almost an afterthought. The event had been in planning since mid-July, and Lincoln’s invitation was issued only 17 days before it took place, while Everett had been invited to speak in early September. Evidence indicates that Lincoln was somewhat undecided himself about speaking: he was mightily occupied with the ongoing war and his upcoming Annual Message to Congress (the 19th-century equivalent of the State of the Union address) on Dec. 8, and he didn’t accept the invitation until two weeks later, on Nov. 14.

And Everett most certainly spoke. His eloquent oration was in the style of the day, with many a flourish of words, and it lasted two hours, which was not uncommon for that time. In contrast, when Lincoln rose to the speaker’s stand, he delivered his “few appropriate remarks” of only 272 words in just under two minutes. Lincoln’s words were immediately applauded as “immortal.”

There is an interesting urban legend that Lincoln scribbled the words of the Gettysburg Address on scraps of paper or the back of an envelope while on the train from Washington to Gettysburg. The rumor had begun circulating only days following the Gettysburg event. But Judge James L. Cotton Jr. ascribes partial responsibility for the wide circulation of the rumor to Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, who published a short book in 1906 entitled The Perfect Tribute:

“The forty-seven page Andrews book, beautifully written but entirely fiction, was required reading in schools all over America for years and has even been made into two movies, breathing even more life into the myth.” [Cotton 2013, Kindle location 1070]

Credible historians have pieced together the actual story. The first page of the short speech is in fact written in ink (meaning inkwell and quill) on Executive Mansion stationery. This was undoubtedly written in Washington and is known as the Washington Draft. He made some revisions, on plain paper in pencil, at the Wills home in Gettysburg the evening before the event. A third draft of the second page was written later that night, after consultation with Secretary of State William Seward. And the final revisions to page two were made, in pencil, following a tour of the battlefield on the day of the ceremony, only minutes before the speech was actually given.

The remarkably eloquent speech was not a sudden burst of inspiration that occurred while rattling down the railroad tracks to Gettysburg, intriguing though that story may be. Rather, it is an Abraham Lincoln masterpiece that resulted from serious consideration and multiple revisions – hallmarks of all great speeches.

References:

1. Johnson, Martin P, Writing the Gettysburg Address, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2013.

2. Cotton, James L Jr, The Greatest Speech, Ever, Palisades, New York: History Publishing Company, 2013, Kindle edition.                                                    

© 2015 Ken Michaels, All rights reserved.
Ken Michaels, retired manager of Visual Communications, Leidos Biomedical Research, is a special volunteer for NCI at Frederick.        

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