The Gettysburg Address at 150–and Lincoln's Impromptu Words the Night Before

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One-hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It has been celebrated by successive generations of Americans ever since. One of my favorite retrospectives was published back in 1894 in The Century Magazine, where John G. Nicolay set the scene in Gettysburg the night before the now-famous speech.

"Except during its days of battle the little town of Gettysburg had never been so full of people," he wrote. "After the usual supper hour the streets literally swarmed with visitors, and the stirring music of regimental bands and patriotic glee-clubs sounded in many directions. With material so abundant, and enthusiasm so plentiful, a serenading party soon organized itself to call on prominent personages for impromptu speeches, and of course the President could not escape. The crowd persisted in calling him out, but Mr. Lincoln showed himself only long enough to utter the few commonplace excuses which politeness required."

Nicolay reprints President Lincoln's impromptu remarks:

I appear before you, fellow-citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things. It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further. 

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The speech he delivered the next day wasn't much longer than those perfunctory remarks. Five copies were written in his own hand. The version reproduced in most history textbooks and on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial was given to Colonel Alexander Bliss, who requested it to use in a fundraising effort for Union soldiers.

The notoriously brief text:

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 battle-field 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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not 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.

Edward Everett, who famously spoke for two hours prior to Lincoln's brief remarks, wrote a thank-you note to the president remarking on the eloquence of his words. 

My Dear Sir: Not wishing to intrude upon your privacy when you must be much engaged, I beg leave in this way to thank you very sincerely for your great thoughtfulness for my daughter's accommodation on the platform yesterday, and much kindness to me and mine at Gettysburg. 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. My son, who parted from me at Baltimore, and my daughter concur in this judgment.

Lincoln replied with modesty:

Your kind note of to-day is received. In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that in your judgment the little I did say was not a failure. Of course I knew that Mr. Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages in it that transcended my expectations. The point made against the theory of the General Government being only an agency whose principals are the States was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel ministering to the suffering soldiers surpasses in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before. 

Gary Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg, wrote about the address for The Atlantic in 1992. Here he is discussing its tremendous influence on modern political prose:

Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg worked several revolutions, beginning with one in literary style. Everett’s talk was given at the last point in history when such a performance could be appreciated without reservation. It was made obsolete within a half hour of the time when it was spoken. Lincoln’s remarks anticipated the shift to vernacular rhythms which Mark Twain would complete twenty years later. Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn. It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address …

The spare quality of Lincoln’s prose did not come naturally but was worked at. Lincoln not only read aloud, to think his way into sounds, but also wrote as a way of ordering his thought … He loved the study of grammar, which some think the most arid of subjects. Some claimed to remember his gift for spelling, a view that our manuscripts disprove. Spelling as he had to learn it (separate from etymology) is more arbitrary than logical. It was the logical side of language—the principles of order as these reflect patterns of thought or the external world—that appealed to him.

He was also, Herndon tells us, laboriously precise in his choice of words. He would have agreed with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and the nearly right one is that between lightning and a lightning bug. He said, debating Douglas, that his foe confused a similarity of words with a similarity of things—as one might equate a horse chestnut with a chestnut horse.

As a speaker, Lincoln grasped Twain’s later insight: “Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.” The trick, of course, was not simply to be brief but to say a great deal in the fewest words. Lincoln justly boasted of his Second Inaugural’s seven hundred words, “Lots of wisdom in that document, I suspect.” The same is even truer of the Gettysburg Address, which uses fewer than half that number of words.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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