Seven score and nine years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln ascended the dais at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the sleepy town that had hosted the bloodiest battle in American history just over four months before. Word for word, I can’t imagine a discourse more powerful than the two-minute speech Lincoln delivered on November 19, 1863.
But if every American has at least a few fragments of the Gettysburg Address rattling around the corners of their memory, they also have a dim recollection of being told that, at the time, Lincoln’s speech was ridiculed, paling by comparison to the grandiloquence achieved by the preceding speaker, Edward Everett, whose two-hour oration has thankfully been forgotten — if it were ever possible to remember. (Here it is if you want to take a shot. Everett, by the way, asked for a copy of the speech from Lincoln — it’s one of the five such manuscripts still extant.)
I’ve always wondered if that were true. “Four score and seven years ago,” etc. seems so objectively a great work of rhetoric that it’s hard to fathom that it engendered anything but admiration.
Of course, if we think that the political discourse of our day is polarized and poisonous, we’ve got nothing on the 1860s, when political opponents regularly questioned the intelligence, manhood, faith, and patriotism of each other. And the media were at least as partisan as the talk radio, cable news, and blogging outlets of the 21st century.
So it’s easy to believe what Wikipedia reports in its article on the Gettysburg Address: that “public reaction to the speech was divided along partisan lines. The next day the Democratic-leaning Chicago Times observed, ‘The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.’ In contrast, the Republican-oriented New York Times was complimentary.”
Actually, while the November 20, 1863 issue of the Times included a transcript of the remarks (noting that it was interrupted several times by applause) and reported loud cheers for Lincoln and the assembled governors, there was no further commentary.
So I’m curious to see if this pattern was reproduced beyond the Union’s largest cities — and how Lincoln’s speech was covered down South. Which provides me a perfect excuse to test drive the Library of Congress’ splendid Chronicling America database, which provides digital access to all sorts of American newspapers going back to the late 17th century.
Lo and behold, the partisan pattern held up North, but there was a curious silence about the speech below the Mason-Dixon line… A sampling of the reportage and analysis on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
The Belmont Chronicle (St. Clairsville, Ohio), November 26, 1863
While the leading Republican daily in the nation’s capital (The Daily National Republican) did little more than repeat the New York Times dispatch (it did add that the president, after retiring to his accommodations, “for more than an hour was the victim of a ‘hands-shaking’ that must have tested his good nature to the utmost”), this abolitionist Republican weekly published in a small town near Wheeling passed along two dispatches from larger newspapers, including this nugget from the editor of the Columbus Journal:
The President’s calm but earnest utterance of this brief and beautiful address stirred the deepest fountains of feeling and emotion in the hearts of the vast throng before him; and, when he had concluded, scarcely could an untearful eye be seen, while sobs of smothered emotion were heard on every hand.
One of those so moved was a wounded Union captain, who “burying his face in his handkerchief… sobbed aloud while his manly frame shook with no unmanly emotion. In a few moments, with a stern struggle to master his emotions, he lifted his still streaming eyes fo heaven and in low and solemn tones exclaimed, ‘God Almigty [sic] bless Abraham Lincoln!’ And to this spontaneous invocation a thousand hearts around him silently responded, Amen!”
The Democrat and Sentinel (Ebensburg, Pennsylvania), December 2, 1863
From a small town now about two and a half hours’ drive from Gettysburg comes a typically scathing set of remarks from a staunchly Democratic publication:
While this hallowed spot is sacred to the memory of the brave soldiers who faced death for the love of country, it will remain a monument of disgrace to Lincoln’s Administration, whose imbecility drove our brave army into the jaws of death to meet a useless encounter. Yet, Mr. Lincoln, not abashed, mounts a rostrum erected over the graves of his countrymen, made by his own blundering incapacity, and jabbers some vulgar jargon to the multitude, who had assembled there with the expectation of hearing an appropriate address.
The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), November 27, 1863
I couldn’t find a single pro-Confederacy newspaper that even took note of Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg (let alone quoted it), though Unionist papers in Tennessee carried transcripts. But then there was this oddity from the largest daily in the capital of the CSA:
After saying nothing about Lincoln’s address in its initial report two days before, Dispatch editor James Cowardin again paid no attention at all to Lincoln’s words, but led with an editorial that heaped insult after insult on Everett (like Cowardin, a former Whig) for his fervently Unionist speech:
Edward Everett’s oration at Gettysburg is what might have been expected of that unreal, metaphorical, moonlight orator. It matters little to him what the facts, so he has full scope for fancy, imagination, and rhetoric. He is always at home when dealing with dead men, and never so happy as on funeral occasions. He delights to water the flowers of his fancy with the blood of the brave, and his imagination runs riot when it can strike its roots into the mould of sepulchres.
…The Chinese believe every man has six souls. Most people would believe Edward Everett, at least, had not one…. His soul, if ever he had one, he has disposed of to Abraham Lincoln, who repays him by letting him play off rhetorical fire-works at Gettysburg, which are very brilliant no doubt, but not quite equal to the pyrotechnic which will celebrate Edward Everett’s demise in that region where hypocrites wail and gnash their teeth.