Lincoln Begins Writing Gettysburg Address
November 17, 1863. President Lincoln began writing his speech for the dedication, two days later, of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He did not, as legend has it, write it hastily on the train on his way to the ceremony.
Chronicles of the Civil War, John Bowman, General Editor, pp. 128-29.
Lincoln Speaks at Gettysburg. “Is that all?”
November 19, 1863. The main speaker at the ceremony dedicating the Gettysburg battlefield as a national cemetery was Edward Everett. He spoke brilliantly for two hours, and consistent with the expectation of that era, spoke about the roots of the war and the details of the battle itself. John Russell Young, the twenty-four year-old correspondent for the Philadelphia Press, wrote of the occasion in his memoirs, published in 1901. Of Everett, he wrote, “We of this generation do not realize the space which Edward Everett filled, at least in the imagination of the younger men. He was the embodiment of a noble and stainless fame. Webster, Clay, Calhoun gone, he was the last of the orators. No more great men left to us, only Everett. He had welcomed Lafayette; his scholarship was our envy and admiration; he had been the friend of Byron, the guest of Walter Scott, Minister to England, Secretary of State, . . .”
Young recalled Lincoln standing up to give his speech: “. . . The music ran on a bit and the President arose. Deliberate, hesitating, awkward, ‘like a telescope drawing out,’ as I heard someone say, . . . [h]e stood an instant waiting for the cheers to cease and the music to exhaust its echoes, slowly adjusted his glasses, and took from his pocket what seemed to be a page of ordinary foolscrap paper, quietly unfolded it, looked for the place, [held it close to his face,] and began to read. . . . [He began at once in a high key, voice archaic, strident, almost in a shriek. He spoke slowly, with deliberation . . . . ] To my surprise, almost it seemed before Mr. Lincoln had begun to speak, he turned and sat down. Surely these five or six lines of shorthand were not all. Hurriedly bending over the aisle I asked if that was all. ‘Yes, for the present,’ he answered. He did not think he could say any more.
“. . . I have read many narratives,” Young concluded, “of the emotions produced by the President’s address, the transcendent awe, . . . the tears that fell, . . .There was nothing of this, to the writer at least, in the Gettysburg address. Nor were the conditions such as to invite it. The long oration of Everett had made people restless. Bits of the crowd had broken away and were wandering off toward the battle scenes. We were tired and chilly . . .” (Eyewitness to America, David Colbert, ed., pp. 228-30.)
Only ten sentences in length, it is perhaps the greatest speech in American history. Its reception was unexceptional, and the President considered it a “flat-failure.” While it received few compliments in the succeeding few days, Everett wrote the president, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of this occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s prediction that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” would prove inaccurate.
Thirty years later, in his best-selling memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant answered the question that Lincoln said the war would decide — “whether that nation, or any nation [conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal], can long endure.” He answered in the affirmative. Grant wrote, “Our republican institutions were regarded as experiments up to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.”
Gettysburg Address Exhibit, Library of Congress
“A Gracious Compliment,” Letter from Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln after the Gettysburg Address
Editor’s note: All entries were submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council, executive director