Recalling Lincoln at Gettysburg

November 22, 1998|By Cynthia Bass

ON Nov. 19, 1863, with the Civil War only half over and the worst yet to come, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech now universally regarded as both the most important oration in U.S. history and the best explanation -- "government of the people, by the people, for the people" -- of why this nation exists.

We would expect the history of an event so monumental as the Gettysburg Address to be well-established. The truth is just the opposite. The only thing scholars agree on is that the speech is short -- only 10 sentences -- and that it took Lincoln less than five minutes to stand up, deliver it and sit back down.

Everything else -- when Lincoln wrote it, where he wrote it, how long it took him to write it, how he was invited, how the audience reacted -- has been open to debate since the moment the words left his mouth.

The most popular recounting of Lincoln at Gettysburg is the Lincoln-as-loser version. In this "history" -- which has dozens of variations -- the letter requesting Lincoln's presence at Gettysburg, received on Nov. 2, is halfhearted in its tone and insultingly late in its arrival.

It's also a rather discourteous letter. It reminds Lincoln this will be an "imposing and solemnly impressive" affair, as if he's too stupid to appreciate the seriousness of dedicating a cemetery. Furthermore, the invitation comes with specific instructions for Lincoln to keep it short, pointing out that he's not the main speaker.

This account has Lincoln accepting the invitation without much thought. Later, on the train to Gettysburg, he writes the address on the back of an envelope, dashing off the now-immortal words like a student rushing to finish an overdue term paper, with no true sense of what the words mean.

At the dedication itself, this version continues, Lincoln's speech is preceded by a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, a much-admired ex-statesman and diplomat. Everett's speech is extremely well-received; Lincoln's is hardly received at all. In fact, most people think, as he reaches his now-so-admired conclusion, that he's still on the introduction. He sits down to lukewarm applause, certain the speech is a failure.

That's version one. Version two, and its numerous variations, has Lincoln informally -- but respectfully -- asked to speak weeks before he's officially invited. What's more, the issuance of a formal invitation on Nov. 2 is considered quite timely. Lincoln is indeed asked to keep it short, but only because this is an interstate -- as opposed to federal -- cemetery and, in the 19th century, the chief executive isn't expected to hog the stage at state-sponsored functions.

In this Lincoln-as-winner look at Gettysburg, Lincoln does write the address shortly before delivering it. However, he's been reflecting on it since mid-October. Also, since he hates speaking extemporaneously, and he hates being rushed, he writes the speech in Washington, not on the train (and not on the back of an envelope). As for the speech itself, it is interrupted five times by applause, with "long continued applause" at the end; Lincoln believes it went well.

What's most interesting about the Lincoln-as-loser and Lincoln-as-winner versions is how they marshal the same facts to prove different points. The invitation asks Lincoln to deliver "a few appropriate remarks." Whether this is a put down or a reflection of the protocol of the time depends on the "spin" -- an expression the highly politicized Lincoln would have readily understood -- that the scholar places on it.

Diverse histories concerning the speech should not in any way diminish the power or beauty of Lincoln's words. However, they should remind us that history, even the history of something as deeply respected as the Gettysburg Address, is seldom simple or clear. This reminder is especially useful today as we watch expert witnesses, in an effort to divine what the founders meant by "high crimes and misdemeanors," club one another with conflicting interpretations of the same events, the same words, the same precedents and the same laws.

Cynthia Bass is a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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