A Delivery Solemn & Impressive~Gettysburg~November 19, 1863

On this day 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of greatest pieces of oratory known to recorded history, short, concise, heart-grabbing and gut-wrenching. For me, one of the most powerful readings of that address I ever heard was in a recording of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the poet Carl Sandburg reading some of those famous words. In my soul, it is the American “Sermon on the Mount.”

As with so many things in Lincoln’s life, the writing and delivery of the Gettysburg Address is enveloped in a complicated mixture of myth and fact, entangled further by time and distance, and shaped no doubt by one’s perceptions of Lincoln. What follows is from an intriguing article, written over a hundred years ago. You, gentle reader, may find the whole of it at “The Gettysburg Address: When Written, How Received, Its True Form” by Major William B Lambert, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, volume 33, #4 (1909), pp 385 – 408.

Gettysburg national cemetery

Gettysburg national cemetery

 

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In the History of the Battle of Gettysburg (published in 1875) Samuel P. Bates in giving an account of the dedication ceremonies quotes the Address and says, “Its delivery was more solemn and impressive than is possible to conceive from its perusal.” Major Harry T. Lee, who was one of the actors in the battle and who was present upon the platform at the dedication, says that the people listened with marked attention throughout the two hours that Mr Everett spoke ; * * * * * but that when Mr. Lincoln came forward and, “with a voice burdened with emotion, uttered these sublime words the bosoms of that vast audience were lifted as a great wave of the sea; and that when he came to the passage, ‘The brave men living and dead, who struggled here’ there was not a dry eye.”

Arnold in his Life of Lincoln (1885), after citing the Address, states, “Before the first sentence was completed, a thrill of feeling like an electric shock pervaded the crowd. That mysterious influence called magnetism, which sometimes so affects a popular assembly, spread to every heart. The vast audience was instantly hushed and hung upon his every word and syllable. Every one felt that it was not the honored dead only, but the living actor and speaker that the world for all time to come would note and remember, and that the speaker in the thrilling words he was uttering was linking his name forever with the glory of the dead * * * All his hearers realized that the great actor in the drama stood before them, and that the words he said would live as long as the language; that they were words which would be recollected in all future ages among all peoples, as often as men should be called upon to die for liberty and country. As he closed, and the tears and sobs and cheers which expressed the emotions of the people subsided, he turned to Everett and, grasping his hand, said, ‘I congratulate you on your success.’ The orator gratefully replied, ‘Ah! Mr. President, how gladly would I exchange all my hundred pages to have been the author of your twenty lines.’”

Major Mekerson, of the 8th Ohio, who had been severely wounded in the battle, was present at the dedication and had a seat on the platform within a few feet of the speakers, gave an account in Scribner’s Magazine July, 1893, of his “Two Visits to Gettysburg.” He says, “Others, too, have differed as to the immediate effects of the President’s remarks. I give the impressions received at the time, which were also identical with those of all with whom I spoke. I thought then and still think it was the shortest, grandest speech to which I ever listened. * * * My own emotions may perhaps be imagined when it is remembered that he was facing the spot where only a short time before we had our death grapple with Pickett’s men and he stood almost immediately over the place where I had lain and seen my comrades torn in fragments by the enemy’s cannon-balls—think then, if you please, how these words fell upon my ear.” Then, quoting a portion of the Address, the Major adds, “If at that moment the Supreme Being had appeared with an offer to undo my past life, give back to me a sound body free from the remembrance even of sufferings past and the imminence of those that must necessarily embitter all the years to come, I should have indignantly spurned the offer, such was the effect upon me of this immortal dedication.”

Robert Miller, who had been the Adjutant of an Ohio Regiment of 100 days’ volunteers, was a member of the Ohio Legislature and attended the dedication ceremonies, stated in a letter published in the Eaton, Ohio, Register, November 30,1863: “The tall form of the President appeared on the stand and never before have I seen a crowd so vast and restless, after standing so long, so soon stilled and quieted. Hats were removed and all stood motionless to catch the first words he should utter, and as he slowly, clearly, and without the least sign of embarrassment read and spoke for ten minutes you could not mistake the feeling and sentiment of the vast multitude before him. I am convinced that the speech of the President has fully confirmed and I think will confirm all loyal men and women in the belief that Abraham Lincoln, though he may have made mistakes, is the right man in the right place.”

The Commissioners representing Massachusetts at the dedication, in their report to Governor Andrew, say, “The brief speech of President Lincoln * * * * made a profound impression” and that it was spoken with great deliberation. The correspondent of the Boston Daily Advertiser, who was probably one of the Commissioners, in his letter to that paper expressed a similar view and added that the remarks “seemed to be emphatically the right words in the right place.”

A committee from the city of Boston attending the dedication reported, “Perhaps nothing in the whole proceedings made so deep an impression on the vast assemblage or has conveyed to the country in so concise a form the lesson of the hour, as the remarks of the President, their simplicity and force make them worthy of a prominence among the utterances from high places.”

The opinions of these Commissioners and of Lieutenant Miller are especially valuable because expressed and recorded immediately after they had heard the address. John Russell Young, who was present on the speaker’s platform as representative of the Philadelphia Press, in an article published in 1891, based upon his recollections and memoranda made at the time, says that the report made by the Associated Press “was studded with applause, but I do not remember the applause and am afraid the appreciative reporter was more than generous—may have put in the applause himself as a personal expression of opinion, * * * I have read * * * of the emotions produced by the President’s address, the transcendent awe that fell upon every one who heard those most mighty and ever living words, to be remembered with pride through the ages, I have read of the tears that fell and the solemn hush, as though in a cathedral solemnity in the most holy moment of the Sacrifice. * * * There was nothing of this, to the writer at least, in the Gettysburg Address.”

Gettysburg Address

In Lamon’s account he professes to quote Mr. Lincoln’s own opinion of his Address and says that, “After its delivery on the day of commemoration he expressed deep regret that he had not prepared it with greater care. He said to me on the stand immediately after concluding the speech, “Lamon, that speech won’t scour! It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.’ He seemed deeply concerned about what the people might think of his address, more deeply, in fact, than I had ever seen him on any public occasion. * * * The occasion was solemn, impressive, and grandly historic. The people, it is true, stood apparently spell-bound; and the vast throng was hushed and awed into profound silence, and attention to his words arose more from the solemnity of the ceremonies and the awful scenes which gave rise to them than from anything he had said. He believed that the speech was a failure. He thought so at the time and he never referred to it afterwards in conversation with me, without some expression of unqualified regret that he had not made the speech better in every way. On the platform from which Mr, Lincoln delivered his address and only a moment after it was concluded, Mr. Seward turned to Mr. Everett and asked him what he thought of the President’s speech. Mr. Everett replied, ‘It is not what I expected from him, I am disappointed.’ Then in his turn Mr. Everett asked, ‘What do you think of it, Mr. Seward?’ The response was, ‘He has made a failure and I am sorry for it. His speech is not equal to him.’ Mr. Seward then turned to me and asked, ‘Mr. Marshal, what do you think of it ?’ I answered, I am sorry to say that it does not impress me as one of his great speeches.’

“In the face of these facts it has been repeatedly published that this speech was received by the audience with loud demonstrations of approval; that amid the tears, sobs, and cheers it produced in the excited throng, the orator of the day, Mr. Everett, turned to Mr. Lincoln, grasped his hand and exclaimed, ‘I congratulate you on your success’ adding in a transport of heated enthusiasm, ‘Ah! Mr. President, how gladly would I give my hundred pages to be the author of your twenty lines!

 “As a matter of fact, the silence during the delivery of the speech, and the lack of hearty demonstration of approval immediately after its close, were taken by Mr. Lincoln as a certain proof that it was not well received. In that opinion we all shared. If any person then present saw, or thought he saw, the marvelous beauties of that wonderful speech, as intelligent men in all lands now see and acknowledge them, his superabundant caution closed his lips and stayed his pen. * * * * I state it as a fact, and without fear of contradiction, that this famous Gettysburg speech was not regarded by the audience to whom it was addressed, or by the press and people of the United States, as a production of extraordinary merit, nor was it commented on as such until after the death of the author.”

gettysburg-address-2

While there may be some truth in Lamon’s narrative, and the language ascribed to Lincoln seems natural and characteristic, allowance should be made for the author’s idiosyncrasies as exhibited in the Life of Lincoln published in 1872, that, purporting to have been written by Lamon, and was based upon information that had been secured by him, was really written by Chauncey F . Black, son of President Buchanan’s Attorney-General. Certainly Lamon’s assertion concerning Everett’s criticism of the Address is not consistent with his letter to the President on the following day, in which, after thanking Mr. Lincoln for the kindness shown himself and his daughter at Gettysburg, Mr. Everett said, “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you with such eloquent simplicity and appropriateness at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

 The President’s reply was characteristically modest; I quote the reference to himself: “In our respective parts yesterday you could not have been excused to make a short address nor I long one. I am pleased to know that in your judgment the little I did say was not a failure.”

Mr. Clark E. Carr, who was present at Gettysburg as a Commissioner from Illinois, is the author of an address, “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” in which he quotes liberally and with approval from Lamon and from Nicolay, and also gives his own impressions concerning the President’s Address, saying: “His expressions were so plain and homely, without any attempt at rhetorical periods, and his statements were so axiomatic, and, I may say, matter-of-fact, and so simple, that I had no idea that as an address it was anything more than ordinary.” But he adds, ” Every one was impressed with his sincerity and earnestness,” and, There was one sentence that did deeply affect me—the only one in which the President manifested emotion. With the close of that sentence his lips quivered, and there was a tremor in his voice which I can never forget. * * * The sentence was, ‘ The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.'”

This sentence that so impressed Mr. Carr attracted the attention of George William Curtis, who, in Harper’s Weekly, December 5,1863, said of the Address, but with special reference to the sentence quoted: “The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart, they can not be read even without kindly emotion. It was as simple and felicitous and earnest a word as was ever spoken.”

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In an address so brief, but so momentous, every syllable tells; and though the differences between the final revision and the speech as actually delivered are few and seemingly immaterial, the changes intensify its strength and pathos and add to its beauty, and as so revised the speech cannot be too jealously preserved as the ultimate expression of the author’s sublime thought. Increasing appreciation of Lincoln’s character and of his fitness for the great work to which in the providence of God he was called enhances the value of his every word, and surely the form by which he intended this utterance should be judged is that in which we should perpetuate the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln Memorial at Gettysburg

Lincoln Memorial at Gettysburg

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