Will little note, nor long remember what we say...


November 19, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"THE WORLD will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here."

So Abraham Lincoln said 129 years ago today. In a sense, he was right! No one today knows exactly what he said.

For example, did he say "what we say here" as quoted above, or "what we may say here"? For another example, did he say ". . . while it can never forget what they did here"? as quoted above, or did he say ". . . but can never forget what they did here"? Or did he say "but it can never forget. . . ."?

Those and other such differences occur in the several versions of the speech historians use today in trying to determine exactly what the crowd heard at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa.

Most of the differences in the versions in "Long Remembered: The Gettysburg Address in Facsimile" -- published by the Library of Congress on the centennial of the address -- are minor. Such as those cited above. So are the differences noted by Garry Wills in his new book, "Lincoln at Gettysburg."

Such things as "the dead" vs. "those dead," "government of the people" vs. "governments of the people," "consecrated above our power to add or detract," vs. "our poor power." And did he say "this nation, under God" or just "this nation"?

The competing texts are the so-called "first draft," written one page in ink and one page in pencil before the speech was delivered; a copy thought by some to be the reading text; some copies made after the speech, including one that was included in a volume of facsimiles sold for the benefit of the Baltimore Sanitary Fair.

Wills, like most others before him, treats that last one as the standard text. But he seems to believe more in a version that Lincoln's host in Gettysburg that day may have sent to Boston for inclusion in a book.

I can't believe Garry, who writes a newspaper column, didn't come down on the side of the account of reporters on the scene! There were, as he notes, four there, all capable of taking a sort of shorthand.

One of those reporters was Joseph L. Gilbert of the Associated Press. He got hold of the reading copy after Lincoln finished and checked his own verbatim version with that. I'd guess that was the most authentic version. On the other hand, as Wills notes, some historians say the stenographic account of reporters who didn't see the text are more likely to have caught Lincoln's ad libs or slight changes.

I'm not sure where The Sun's version came from. Probably from Gilbert, directly or indirectly. Our front page story that included the text is identified only as "Letter from Gettysburg (Correspondence of the Baltimore Sun)."

There was one interesting difference between our version and others. Instead of quoting Abe as saying, "the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here," we reported he said ". . . who straggled here."

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