Remembering the Gettysburg Address: Why was Lincoln’s famous speech overlooked for so long?

NOVEMBER 21, 2013, 12:17 PM

Remembering the Gettysburg Address


John Hay woke with a severe hangover on the morning of Nov. 19, 1863. As one of Abraham Lincoln’s closest White House aides, Hay had spent the previous evening drinking copiously with the disparate crew of journalists and politicians who converged on the small town of Gettysburg, Penn., for the dedication of a new national cemetery later that day. A bystander remembered seeing the presidential party arrive after a long train ride from Washington, “a straggled, hungry set. Lincoln, with that weary smile … Seward, with an essentially bad hat; John Hay, in attendance upon the president, and much to be troubled by the correspondents, handsome as a peach, the countenance of extreme youth.”For Lincoln, the dedication of the national battlefield cemetery was politically loaded: It offered an important opportunity to convene with Northern governors and newspaper correspondents who would prove critical to his re-nomination fight the following summer. While his White House aides plied their trade, mixing politics and drink, the president attended a dinner at the home of the local attorney David Wills, then retired to a guest bedroom to complete his speech.

“I got a beast and rode out with the President’s suite to the Cemetery in the procession,” Hay noted in his diary the next day. Edward Everett, the former governor of Massachusetts and a noted orator, spoke first, and for over two hours. Then Lincoln rose to give a few remarks. “Mr. Everett spoke as he always does perfectly — and the President in a firm free way, with more grace than is his wont said his half dozen lines of consecration and the music wailed and we went home through crowded and cheering streets. And all the particulars are in the daily papers.”

And that was that. At the time, Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was regarded as an important political moment, but little more. A search of 15 major American newspapers from 1864 through 1889 yields just a handful of mentions of the Gettysburg Address. When Hay and his colleague John Nicolay published their monumental, 10-volume biography of Lincoln in 1890, they devoted eight pages to Everett’s keynote address, and only two pages to Lincoln’s.

In contrast, between 1890 and 1915, the Gettysburg Address merits at least 579 mentions in the same group of papers, and both Hay and Nicolay did an about face on the speech. After Hay’s death, Lincoln’s son Robert spent almost 10 years searching for the original manuscript; it appeared as a facsimile in the Nicolay-Hay volumes but had mysteriously disappeared after Robert reclaimed his father’s papers from the Hay family. Eventually Alice Hay Wadsworth, Hay’s daughter, found the document among her possessions in 1916 and donated it to the Library of Congress. It seems that her father pinched the copy from the larger collection. He couldn’t stand to part with it.

Ironically, the speech became famous just as America forgot what it meant. Readings of the Gettysburg Address became an obligatory part of Memorial Day celebrations at public schools, municipal ceremonies and regimental reunions. But of the hundreds of newspaper articles noting its public recitation, very few stopped to dwell on the text’s original meaning.

As memories of the war faded in the 1880s and 1890s, and as Jim Crow stamped out the brief moment of racial liberalism that the Civil War helped catalyze, Americans adopted a new ritual of Blue and Gray reunions, in which aging veterans relived their battlefield achievements. In 1887, Boston’s Granddaughters of the American Revolution post honored Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans, while the Seventh Connecticut Regiment held a reunion honoring a Confederate officer whom they had captured during the war. Two years later, the Society of the Army of the Cumberland held a Blue-Gray reunion that drew 25,000 people near the Chickamauga Battlefield.

Such events became commonplace, as many Northerners — their moral memories faded and their racial prejudices hardened — slipped into ideological amnesia. The Civil War was no longer remarkable for what it accomplished, but for what soldiers did on the battlefield. Even Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who had enlisted as a committed abolitionist and who nearly died in combat, came to believe that “the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands.”

In fact, soldiers’ letters and diaries written during the war suggest that they did indeed understand what they were fighting for. Moreover, at the time of its delivery, the Gettysburg Address — in which Lincoln signaled a new moral turn in the war — was widely understood. In its immediate aftermath, an Ohio Democrat denounced the speech as a “mawkish harangue about this ‘was for freedom’ of the negro.” The Chicago Times, a fierce enemy of the administration, complained: “Lincoln did most foully traduce the motives of the men who were slain at Gettysburg.” They had not perished to give the nation a “new birth of freedom.” Instead, “they gave their lives to maintain the old government, and the old constitution and Union.”

By the 1890s, however, when the Gettysburg Address finally entered America’s secular gospel, most people conveniently forgot what Lincoln actually attempted to convey in his brief remarks. Even in Montgomery, Ala., where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as Confederate president, the local paper thought it unremarkable when “Decoration Day was observed in this city, the ‘Cradle of the Confederacy,’ with imposing ceremonies, many ex-confederates being in attendance. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was read at the graveyard and several patriotic speeches were made.”

In 1898, as North and South emphasized inter-sectional unity during the Spanish-American War, it was commonplace for Union and Confederate veterans to link arms during public recitations of the speech, which now came to represent a vague tribute to battlefield bravery rather than a commitment to Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” In Lincoln’s home state, The Chicago Tribune reported that “Veterans of the Confederate Army shared in” Memorial Day exercises that included readings of the address. “Many speakers pointed to the common spirit of patriotism in the North and South today as evidence that the antipathies of a generation ago have been forgotten.” In Pacific Grove, Calif., former enemies marched together to Soldier’s Cemetery, where they listened to a reading of the address and children “strew flowers on the graves of the Nation’s heroes slumbering in the shade of Fort Halleck’s pines.”

Later that year, The Atlanta Constitution favorably compared the Gettysburg Address to remarks by President William McKinley, a Union veteran, who declared that in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, “sectional lines no longer mar the map of the United States.” According to the paper, “Great as have been the achievements of President McKinley’s administration in war, the country will turn to his truly patriotic address at Atlanta … as ranking with that of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.”

Given the popular transformation of the Gettysburg Address into a generic expression of battlefield commemoration, it was little wonder that in 1909, in honor of the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, Confederate and Union veterans gathered at Atlanta’s Trinity Church, where a retired brigadier general recited the speech.

To be sure, not everyone stripped the document of its broader implications. In New York, proponents of women’s suffrage opened a meeting with recitation of the speech, followed by a lecture on “The Next Steps in Political Reform.” For many African-American audiences, the Gettysburg Address would remain, as it had always been, a proclamation wedding the Civil War to the emancipationist project. In his final years, John Nicolay insisted that the Gettysburg Address was an expansive document. Lincoln, he explained, gave expression to his long-held belief that “’he who would be no slave must consent to have no slave.’ This rule, translated to our day, plainly is that he who would suffer no wrong to society from society must do no wrong to society.”

It would take several decades before the modern civil rights revolution compelled most white Americans to reacquaint themselves with the ideological aspects of the Civil War. In so doing, they would come to rediscover a speech that was first forgotten, then remembered and finally, a century after its delivery, understood.

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Joshua Zeitz is the author of the forthcoming “Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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