. . .they think they shall be heard for their much speaking. Matthew 6:7 (KJV)
The guns at Gettysburg fell silent on July 3, 1863, and the two great armies, Union and Confederate, both badly crippled by the three-day-long battle, began to move out on Independence Day, leaving the citizens of the tiny Pennsylvania town to tend those too desperately wounded to be moved and to bury the dead—more than seventy-five hundred of those last. Land was purchased for a cemetery, the dead were buried, and Gettysburg planned a solemn dedication ceremony.
Edward Everett, a noted speaker of the day, was invited to give the keynote address. Everett was a Massachusetts lawyer and politician, who had, in 1852, been appointed to fill out the unexpired term of Daniel Webster as secretary of state in the Fillmore administration, then served, briefly, as a Massachusetts senator. He was a speaker very much in the mode of his idol, Webster—who is still remembered as one of the greatest of all American orators. Invited to speak at the Gettysburg dedication, which was originally scheduled for October 23, Everett replied that he needed more time to prepare an appropriate address for so important an occasion, and the event was rescheduled for November 19.
Almost as an afterthought, President Abraham Lincoln was invited, on November 2, to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” to conclude the ceremony.
Thus it was that Everett had forty days to prepare a speech, and prepare one he did. In later printed versions, it runs to 13,607 words. He opened with the words:
Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.
Two hours later, he ended with an equally orotund paragraph:
But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battle of Gettysburg.
That last, presumably, was addressed to the Confederacy.
Lincoln had, on the train journey from Washington DC to Pennsylvania, been tinkering with his “few appropriate remarks.” The version we have now does not agree with notes made by listeners at the time; it comes from a copy made for Col. Alexander Bliss, a friend, in Lincoln’s own hand. Significantly, it is the only one Lincoln signed, almost as if he were “signing off” on the only version of his speech that completely met with his approval.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . .we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In the mid-nineteenth century, tastes ran to a preference for prolix speeches like Everett’s, which was universally praised—and we must remember that, for all that we revere him nowadays as the greatest of our presidents, Lincoln was not so revered in his own time. The most hostile reviews came from the Democratic side of the aisle—the side that favored letting the Confederacy go its own way; one paper of that party’s views called Lincoln’s speech “silly, flat, and dishwatery”. Republican sympathizers referred to it as “a perfect gem.” And in the reminiscences of some friends, Lincoln himself was said to have remarked “that speech won’t scour.”
The man who spoke for two hours before Lincoln, however, gave him the best enconmium of any that followed the ceremony. In a letter he wrote to Lincoln on the following day, Everett said: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Lincoln drily replied that he was glad to know the speech was not a total failure.
Within a year and a half, both Lincoln and Everett would be dead. Six weeks after Lincoln died at the hands of an assassin, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts rose to deliver a eulogy for the fallen president. In that eulogy, Sumner called the Gettysburg Address “a monumental act” and disagreed that it would “be little noted, nor long remembered”. The world, he said, “will never cease to remember it.”
Everett’s Gettysburg Address was reprinted in book form to raise money for soldiers’ relief. It was all but forgotten by the time of his death, and is seldom read and rarely even mentioned to this day.
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