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The triumph and trivia of the Gettysburg Address

Historic speech, now 150 years old, shows how even ‘trivial’ matters can have a huge impact

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 9:33 a.m. CDT
Caption
James M. Cornelius
Caption
(AP)
This 1905 artist’s rendering from the Sherwood Lithograph Co. via the Library of Congress depicts President Abraham Lincoln speaking at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. The Gettysburg Address is unusual among great American speeches, in part because the occasion did not call for a great American speech. “No one was looking for him to make history,” James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian, said.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago on Nov. 19, 1863, has become part of our historical literature. First spoken at a new cemetery in that old Pennsylvania village, it has been reproduced on hundreds of thousands of souvenir papers, T-shirts, bronze plaques, and marble walls. It is a part of schoolkids' culture, of aspiring immigrants' thoughts, and of veterans' remembrances. 

There are also scores of teeny-tiny facts about Lincoln himself that day, and about the speech, that fascinate people today.

Who were the other 36 people sleeping in Judge Wills' house on the square that night? Did Lincoln give a watch to your great-great-grandpa on the train to Pennsylvania? What was the name of the president's horse in the procession? Is my fake parchment copy of it the real thing?

Please do not scoff – individuals care about these discrete details because hundreds of millions of people care about the epochal events: the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 that killed more than 7,800 men, and the speech of 272 words that set this nation on a path toward resolution. If you are serious about a subject, then you are probably serious about some of its sidelights.

Lincoln himself cared about the tiniest of nuances. That is why, in the course of drafting his five manuscripts of the Address, he kept altering words:

Good: "upon"

Better: "on"

Good: "propriety"

Better: "fitting and proper"

Good: "to stand here"

Better: "here be dedicated"

Good: "shall have a new birth"

Better: "under God, shall have a new birth"

Some things sound better when spoken; some things read better when written. Some principles need italicizing with the human voice. All things bear improvement. Lincoln the tinkerer, the lawyer, the politician, the commander, the president, knew that. Most of all, he knew that this nation needed a "new birth" to make itself better.

The myths surrounding the Gettysburg Address are few and unimportant. His invitation to speak was not a late afterthought. He did not write any of the speech on an envelope. He did not write any of it on the train. He did not think it a failure.

Indeed, the facts are bigger and better than the myths: he began thinking about his message just 4 days after the battles of July; he polished it up the night before the speech in the presence of William Johnson, a black man; he was ill with smallpox for several days afterward, and might have been feeling poorly by Nov. 18. But Lincoln was not skipping the trip on his own account; he was certainly going to Gettysburg, once the family doctor assured him and Mary that their 10-year-old boy, Tad, would recover from his own bout of smallpox.

So, is it trivial that William Johnson was in the room? Not if you imagine that Lincoln had that one person in mind while he was writing to ensure the freedom of 4 million other African Americans; writing to steel the nation's resolve to fight on and preserve the Union; writing because "these dead shall not have died in vain."  

In our freedom we can look up the trivial, but we must prize the big picture. All of Lincoln's efforts have proved triumphant, thanks to more soldiers and citizens and citizens-to-be than he could ever have imagined.

Note to readers: James Cornelius, who has a doctorate degree, is curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. To learn more about the Gettysburg Address and the presidential library’s anniversary celebration, please visit www.GettysburgAddress150.com.

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