November 19, 2013 marks the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, delivered to a crowd of about 15,000 people on the afternoon of November 19, 1863 at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg Pennsylvania. Edward Everett, a statesman and former president of Harvard, and President Lincoln were invited to speak at the inauguration of the National Cemetery of Gettysburg, site of the infamous Battle of Gettysburg. That great battle, fought from July 1-3 that same year, is notable because it had the largest number of casualties (more than 50,000 soldiers) in the American Civil War and consequently, it was the war’s turning point.
Everett was known as a brilliant orator; however he was also quite periphrastic. His 13,607-word speech ran for almost two hours and was quite forgettable. Fortunately for the patient crowd, Lincoln’s speech was extremely short (272 words), lasting for just over two minutes. Lincoln was not the greatest speaker (according to biographer David Von Drehle, when Lincoln spoke “a high and reedy voice twanged forth incongruously.”) but he was a gifted writer. Although it is incredibly concise at a mere 271 words long (short enough to be memorized by millions of school children each year), it is considered by many speechwriters as one of the most beautifully crafted speeches — eloquent, evocative, powerful, and poetic; in short, the quintessential presidential speech. Although it is cherished today, the audience at Gettysburg was not that impressed — as soon as Lincoln finished his speech there was a moment of silent followed by scattered, light applause. Lincoln, who was not feeling well that day due to a bout with smallpox, had a very modest assessment of his delivery; in a letter to Everett he noted that it was not “a total failure.”
Over the years, a mythology has grown around Lincoln’s speech regarding where and when he wrote it (the most common legend has Lincoln writing the speech on an envelope during the bumpy train ride to Gettysburg). Lincoln was a very deliberate and methodical writer — beginning drafts far before the actual event, taking time between drafts to reflect and carefully consider his edits. According to historian Gabor Boritt, Lincoln began writing the speech on November 17 in Washington, completed a second draft the evening of the 18th in Gettysburg, and wrote the final draft on the morning of the 19th, considered the reading copy.
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s reading copy was not saved. However, there are five known copies of the Gettysburg Address, each one named after its owner. Two of the copies were written soon after the event — the (John) Nicolay copy and the (John) Hay copy, and three were written long after — the (Edward) Everett copy, the (George) Bancroft copy, and the (Alexander) Bliss copy. There are subtle differences between all the copies, but none match the reading copy. Several newspapers transcribed the speech, but introduced subtle errors and are not considered definitive versions. The Bliss copy, written some time after the actual speech (and the only copy that Lincoln ever signed), is the basis for the standard text of the speech we all know. It is displayed in the Lincoln Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
150 years later, Lincoln’s speech is recognized for being so far ahead of its time. In today’s world of news, dominated by sound bites and reliance on social media — not to mention the public’s short-attention span — Lincoln’s brevity was brilliant. John Hale, director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville (Kentucky), praises Lincoln’s diction and succinctness: “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is probably the greatest speech ever written. It took him several days to perfect the very short, final version. But in just a few sentences, he summed up American history and democratic ideals as well as giving a new motive for keeping up the fight, so that those who fell at Gettysburg ‘will not have died in vain.'”
Understandably, the speech has been the source of tremendous scholarship with emphasis on the backstory, inspiration, sources, allusions, rhetoric, and meaning of the speech. It is found in most of the anthologies of the greatest speeches in history. It endures as a testament to Lincoln’s impeccable rhetoric and diction, harnessing the beauty and power of the English language to stir a group of people, and an entire nation. Moreover, the speech is a testament to Lincoln’s natural ability to capture the essence of a historical moment not with the overabundance of empty words — but with the quality of a few thoughtful, carefully-chosen words that have echoed through the halls of history.
For further reading: The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech that Nobody Knows by Gabor Boritt , Simon & Schuster (2006).
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through his Words by Ronald White, Random House (2005).
Long Remembered: Lincoln and his Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address by Douglas Wilson, Levenger Press (2011).
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills, Simon and Schuster (1992)
Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle, Henry Holt (2012).
My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of America’s Presidents by Michael Waldman, Source Books (2003).