election of 1864

President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

The Library of Congress, John Hay Papers, Manuscript Division

Featured Book

, The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech that Nobody Knows
(Simon & Schuster, 2006)

Journalist Noah Brooks claimed that in early November 1863 he accompanied the President Abraham Lincoln to a sitting with photographer Alexander Gardner. “Just as we were going down the stairs of the White House, the President suddenly remembered that he needed a paper, and, after hurrying back to his office, soon rejoined me with a long envelop in his hand. When we were fairly started, he said that in the envelop was an advance copy of Edward Everett’s address to be delivered at the Gettysburg dedication on the following Tuesday. Drawing it out, I saw that it was a one-page supplement to a Boston paper, and that Mr. Everett’s address nearly covered both sides of the sheet. The President expressed his admiration for the thoughtfulness of the Boston orator, who had sent this copy of his address in order that Mr. Lincoln might not traverse the same lines that the chosen speaker of the great occasion might have laid out for himself.”1
This is one of many myths about President Lincoln and the Gettysburg address, according to historian Gabor Borritt. The Gettysburg College historian contends that Brooks was not present for Mr. Lincoln’s photographic session on November 8 and the President could not have received any copy of Everett’s speech until after November 14, when Everett himself received it from the printer. Indeed, it was not until November 2 that cemetery organizer David Wills wrote Mr. Lincoln: “It is the desire that you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the great battle here, to have you here personally, It will kindle anew in the breasts of the comrades of these brave dead, now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the battlefield are not forgotten by those in authority; and they will feel that should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.”2 But Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson surmised that Lincoln already knew he would be invited since “on October 11, Wills told a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer that ‘President Lincoln is expected to perform the consecrational service.’ This would mean Lincoln had significantly more time to prepare than previously believed.”3 Indeed friend Joshua Speed recalled being told that “he was anxious to go – and desired to be prepared to say some appropriate thing.”4 Everett had already been invited on September 23 to address cemetery dedication ceremonies that were then planned for October. Everett replied that the earliest date he had available was November 19, which was when the ceremonies were duly scheduled.
Everett planned a long, ornate speech. Brooks recalled of the supposed Everett manuscript: “When I exclaimed at its length, the President laughed and quoted the line: “Solid men of Boston, make no long orations,’ which he said he had met somewhere in a speech by Daniel Webster. He said that there was no danger that he should get upon the lines of Mr. Everett’s oration, for what he had ready to say was very short, or, as he emphatically expressed it, ‘short, short, short.’ In reply to a question as to the speech having been already written, he said that it was written, ‘but not finished.’ He had brought the paper with him, he explained, hoping that a few minutes of leisure while waiting for the movements of the photographer and his processes would give him a chance to look over the speech. But we did not have to wait long between the sittings, and the President, having taken out the envelop and laid it on a little table at his elbow, became so engaged in talk that he failed to open it while we were at the studio. A disaster overtook the negative of that photograph, and after a very few prints had been made from it, no more were possible. In the picture which the President gave me, the envelop containing Mr. Everett’s oration is seen on the table by the side of the sitter, recalling the incident and Lincoln’s quotation of Boston’s ‘long orations.'”5
Mr. Lincoln usually worked out important speeches in his mind over some time, revising them up to the last minute. On November 17 he told a friend that his Gettysburg Address was half-finished. How half-finished has been the subject of considerable debate ever since. Historian Richard N. Current noted that the ideas in the Gettysburg address had been under consideration for several decades: “As early as 1838 in speaking to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, he had presented essentially the same theme. The Founding Fathers, Lincoln said on that occasion, had ‘aspired to display before an admiring world a practical demonstration of the truth of the proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better than problematical; namely, the capacity of a people to govern themselves’ Again and again he returned to this thought, especially after the outbreak of the Civil War, and he steadily improved both the idea and his phrasing of it. In his special message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln said that the war involved ‘the question whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people – can, or cannot maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes’. Finally, at Gettysburg, he made the supreme statement, culminating in the long remembered words, ‘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’.”6
The trip to Gettysburg itself would provide little opportunity for President Lincoln to compose even a short speech. Biographer William E. Barton wrote: “The railway authorities of the Baltimore and Ohio, who furnished the special train, planned at first that the president should leave Washington early in the morning of the day of dedication, and return that night. Lincoln himself, with characteristic caution, informed the secretary of war that he did not like this arrangement. At Lincoln’s suggestion, Secretary Stanton procured a change of schedule. Instead of leaving Washington at six o’clock on Thursday morning, the presidential train left at noon on Wednesday, November eighteenth. The train contained four coaches. The fourth coach, in which the president rode, was a directors’ car, the rear portion of which was partitioned off into a separate compartment with seats around the walls. In this car rode with the president, his secretary, John G. Nicolay, his assistant secretary, John Hay, the three members of his Cabinet who accompanied him, Messrs. Seward, Usher and Blair, several foreign officials and others.”7
Like reports concerning the timing of the speech’s composition, the trip from Washington to Gettysburg is the subject of many stories. Adjutant General James B. Fry recalled: “I was designated by the Secretary of War as a sort of special escort to accompany the President from Washington to Gettysburg upon the occasion of the first anniversary of the battle at that place. At the appointed time I found the President’s carriage at the door to take him to the station; but he was not ready. When he appeared it was rather late, and I remarked that he had no time to lose in going to the train. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I feel about that as the convict in one of our Illinois towns felt when he was going to the gallows. As he passed along the road in the custody of the sheriff, the people, eager to see the execution, kept crowding and pushing past him. At last he called out, ‘Boys! you needn’t be in such a hurry to get ahead, for there won’t be any fun till I get there.'”8
Mary Todd Lincoln did not accompany the President to Pennsylvania because the Lincolns’ youngest son Tad was sick at the White House. In the Lincoln traveling party to Gettysburg, however, was black valet William Johnson, who like president Lincoln would come down with a form of smallpox on the trip. Unlike President Lincoln, Johnson would die from the disease with a month. “We started from Washington to go to the Consecration of the Soldiers’ Cemetery at Gettysburg. On our train were the President Seward, Usher & Blair: Nicolay & Myself: Mercier & Admiral Reynaud; Bertinatti & Capt. Isola & Lt. Martinez & Cora: Mrs. Wise: Wayne McVeagh: McDougal of Canada and one or two others. We had a pleasant sort of a trip. At Baltimore [General Robert] Schenck’s staff joined us,” recalled Lincoln aide John Hay.9
Mr. Lincoln was kept busy in conversation for most of the trip so composing his speech along the way was out of the question. “During the ride to Gettysburg the President placed every one who approached him at his ease, relating numerous stories, some of them laughable, and others of a character that deeply touched the hearts of his listeners,” recalled Union Army officer E. W. Andrews. The President told the father of a young man who had died in the battle: “You have been called upon to make a terrible sacrifice for the Union, and a visit to that spot, I fear, will open your wounds afresh. But oh! My dear sir, if we had reached the end of such sacrifices, and had nothing left for us to do but to place garlands on the graves of those who have already fallen, we could give thanks even amidst our tears; but when I think of the sacrifices of life yet to be offered and the hearts and homes yet to be made desolate before this dreadful war, so wickedly forced upon us, is over, my heart is like lead within me, and I feel, at times, like hiding in deep darkness.”10
Wayne MacVeagh remembered: “At Baltimore a baggage-car in which had been provided luncheon was attached to the train, and thither we were invited just as we were leaving Baltimore. As the train had entered a deep cut on the line of the railway, the baggage-car was even darker than usual, and, of course, the noise of the train was grater. Mr. Lincoln, at the head of the table, at once said that the situation reminded him of a friend of his in southern Illinois who, riding over a corduroy road where the logs were not sufficiently close together, was frightened by a thunder-storm. In the glimpses of light afforded by the lightning, his horse would endeavor to reach another log, but too frequently missed it, and fell with his rider. As a result of several such mishaps, the traveler, although not accustomed to prayer, thought that the time had come to address his Maker, and said: “Oh, Lord, if it would suit you equally well, it would suit me much better if I had a little more light and a little less noise.’ As Mr. Lincoln concluded his story, the train passed into the open, where there was much more light and much less noise.”11
The presidential train pulled into Gettysburg about nightfall. John Hay wrote in his diary “Just before we arrived at Gettysburg the President got into a little talk with Pennsylvania Republican Chairman McVeagh about Missouri affairs. McV. talked radicalism until he learned that he was talking recklessly.” Hay wrote:

At Gettysburg the President went to Mr. Wills who expected him and our party broke like a drop of quicksilver spilt. McVeagh young Stanton & I foraged around for a while – walked out to the College got a chafing dish of oysters then some supper and finally loafing around to the Court House where Ward Hill Lamon was holding a meeting of [parade] Marshals, we found journalist John W. Forney and went around to his place Mr. Fahnestocks and drank a little whiskey with him. He had been drinking a good deal during the day and was getting to feel a little ugly and dangerous. He was particularly bitter on Montgomery Blair. McVeagh was telling him that he pitched into the President coming up and told him some truths. He said the President got a good deal of that from time to time and needed it.
He says “Hay you are a fortunate man. You have kept yourself aloof from your office. I know an old fellow now seventy who was Private Secretary to Madison. He has lived ever since on its recollection. He thought there was something solemn and memorable in it. Hay has laughed through his term.”
“He talked very strangely referring to the affectionate and loyal support which he and Governor Andrew Curtin had given to the President in Pennsylvania: with references from himself and others to the favors that had been shown the Simon Cameron party whom they regard as their natural enemies. Forney seems identified fully now with the Curtin interest, though when Curtin was nominated he called him a heavy weight to carry and said that Cameron’s foolish attack nominated him.
“We went out after a while following the music to hear the serenades. The President appeared at the door said half a dozen words meaning nothing & went in. Seward who was staying around the corner at Harper’s was called out and spoke so indistinctly that I did not hear a word of what he was saying. Forney and McVeagh were still growling about Blair.
“We went back to Forney’s room having picked up Nicolay and drank more whiskey. Nicolay sung his little song of the ‘Three Thieves’ and we then sung John Brown. At last we proposed that Forney should make a speech and two or three started out Shannon and Behan and Nicolay to get a band to serenade him. I staid with him. So did Stanton and McVeagh. He still growled quietly and I thought he was going to do something imprudent. He said if I speak, I will speak my mind. The music sounded in the street and the fuglers came rushing up imploring him to come down. He smiled quietly told them to keep cool and asked ‘are the recorders there.’ ‘I suppose so of course’ shouted the fugler. ‘Ascertain’ said the imperturbable Forney. ‘Hay, we’ll take a drink.’ They shouted and begged him to come down[.] The thing would be a failure – it would be his fault &c. ‘Are the recorders congenial?’ he calmly insisted on knowing. Somebody commended prudence He said sternly ‘I am always prudent.’ I walked down stairs with him.
The crowd was large and clamorous. The fuglers stood by the door in an agony. The reporters squatted at a little stand in the entry. Forney stood on the Threshold, journalist John Young & I by him. The crowd shouted as the door opened. Forney said: “My friends, these are the first hearty cheers I have heard tonight. You gave no such cheers to your President down the street. Do you know what you owe to that Great man? You owe your country – you owe your name as American citizens.”
He went on blackguarding the crowd for their apathy & then diverged to his own record saying he had been for Lincoln in his heart in 1860 – that open advocacy was not as effectual as the course he took – dividing the most corrupt organization that ever existed – the proslavery Dem. Party. He dwelt at length on this question and then went back to the eulogy of the President that great, wonderful mysterious inexplicable man: who holds in his single hands the reins of the republic: who keep his own counsels: who does his own purpose in his own way no matter what temporizing minister in his cabinet sets himself up in opposition to the progress of the age.12

It was a noisy night in Gettysburg. The town was overrun by visitors. President Lincoln stayed at the three-story home of David Wills, where more than three dozen people were accommodated. Nevertheless, Mr. Lincoln closeted himself in his room and worked on his manuscript that night and early the next morning. There was a good deal of drinking and revelry on the eve of the dedication. People who found a bed counted themselves lucky. Mr. Lincoln was fortunate to be housed near Secretary of State William H. Seward, whom he consulted on the manuscript late that night. The next morning, the mood in Gettysburg shifted from sodden to solemn. Between 9 and 10 A.M., Mr. Lincoln again worked on his manuscript – in the company of private secretary John G. Nicolay. The President then joined the official procession from the center of Gettysburg, where he was staying, to the new cemetery on the ridge where the Union Army fended off Confederate assaults on July 1-3, 1863.

Historian Herbert L. Carson wrote: “November 19, 1863, began inauspiciously. It was a gloomy day, warm and humid. A rather gala procession from the town to the cemetery had been planned. Many of those scheduled to march, however, declined the honor, preferring to remain along the line of march to see the numerous dignitaries who were present or expected. Mr. Lincoln rode to the ceremony in a place of honor, right behind the military section of the procession. He was seated on a beautiful and spirited chestnut horse, which unfortunately was too small for his gangling frame.”13 The New York Times reported: “The National Cemetery which has been consecrated today by such imposing ceremonies is located in the very midst of the fierce strife of those terrible July days, and many of the Union heroes fell on the ground comprised within its enclosure. It is little over half a mile to the south of the Gettysburg Court-house, in the outskirts of the town, on what is called Prospect Hill, which is but a continuation of the elevated ridge known as Cemetery Hill.”14
The sun finally broke through the clouds while the opening prayer was being delivered. “Around the platform, on which the addresses were delivered, the military were formed in hollow square several ranks deep,” recalled Union officer E. W. Andrews.15 “Lamon and Wills reserved the chair at Lincoln’s left for Secretary of State Seward. The three chairs to Seward’s left would be occupied by three governors – Curtin, Horatio Seymour of New York, and David Tod of Ohio. Governor Curtin, in reality, was the host of the whole affair. Governor Seymour, a Democrat, had earlier argued with President Lincoln over draft quotas and there was a need to regain his good will. Governor Tod earned Lamon’s favor by sponsoring a special train from Columbus to Pennsylvania; further, Ohioans had organized a special afternoon program in downtown Gettysburg,” wrote historian Frank Klement. “When Everett finally emerged from his tent, David Wills and Governor Seymour went down to meet him and escort him to the chair at Lincoln’s right. Everyone on the platform stood up as the aging orator, seventy winters old, walked slowly to be greeted by the president and take his allotted chair.”16
Although former Whig Everett had been the Union Party’s nominee for Vice President in 1860, he had subsequently become one of Massachusetts’ strongest supporters of President Lincoln. Lincoln scholar F. Lauriston Bullard wrote that Everett “was one of the few who saw Lincoln for what he was. The contrast between the two must have been striking that day in Gettysburg. It is to their unending credit that each appreciated the other.”18 Everett had arrived in Gettysburg a day early so he could survey the battlefield. “Standing beneath this serene sky,” said Everett at the beginning of his speech, “overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”19
Lincoln colleague Ward Hill Lamon recalled: “As soon as the dignitaries who occupied the stand, numbering perhaps 250, were seated, Hon. Edward Everett & Rev. Thos. H. Stockton appeared, escorted by a Committee of Governors of States, and being seated, one of the bands struck up and performed a solemn piece of music in admirable style. That over, Mr. Stockton made one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers I ever heard. The Band then played, with great effect, Old Hundred. Mr. Everett then arose, and without notes of any kind, pronounced an oration. He occupied two full hours in the delivery, and it was one of the greatest, most eloquent, elegant, and appropriate orations to which I ever listened. I stood at his very side, through it, and I think the oratory could not be surpassed by mortal man.19 Almost two hours after he began, Everett concluded his remarks.
President Lincoln’s speech that day was almost an afterthought – for the organizers of the events and those who reported it. President Lincoln “came out before the vast assembly, and stepped slowly to the front of the platform, with his hands clasped before him, his natural sadness of expression deepened, his head bent forward, and his eyes cast to the ground,” recalled E. W. Andrews. “In this attitude he stood for a few seconds, silent, as if communing with his own thoughts; and when he began to speak, and throughout his entire address, his manner indicated no consciousness of the presence of tens of thousand hanging on his lips, but rather of one who, like the prophet of old, was overmastered by some unseen spirit of the scene, and passively gave utterance to the memories, the feelings, the counsels and the prophecies with which he was inspired.”20
Lincoln aide John G. Nicolay’s daughter Helen later wrote: “Newspapers stated that Mr. Lincoln read from a manuscript in his hand. My father sat only a few feet away, and his distinct recollection was that the President held the manuscript but did not read from it, his delivery by being far more than a mechanical reading of written words. My father’s recollection is borne out by the fact the speech as taken down in shorthand by the Associated Press and printed next morning in the newspapers does not follow exactly the written words. My father thought it most likely that, during the ride to the grounds and the delivery of Mr. Everett’s oration, Mr. Lincoln fashioned the phrases anew in his silent thought and had them ready when he rose to speak.”21 But that was one of several controversies regarding the text, according to Lincoln biographer William E. Barton: “As to his manuscript, we could prove that he had no manuscript with him on the platform; that he had a manuscript, but that it was either a card or a piece of paper not larger than a card; that he had some notes on paper of rough appearance, presumed to have been those that he had written on the train; that he delivered his address from notes on a yellow envelope….”22 His short speech generated long controversies.

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.35

Witness George D. Gitt recalled: “Lincoln slowly took his hand from his chin, bent slightly forward, and very deliberately drew from an inner pocket of his coat a few flimsy pieces of paper. These he shuffled from hand to hand until the particular sheet he was seeking appeared. Leaning back in the chair again, but without recrossing his legs, he intently studied what he had written on that sheet. The posture was characteristic, and some sculptor has long since given it permanency in bronze. Tucking away the papers, he arose, and very slowly stepped to the front of the platform. The flutter and motion of the crowd ceased the moment the president was on his feet. Such was the quiet that his footfalls, I remember very distinctly, woke echoes, and with the creaking of the boards, it was as if someone were walking through the hallways of an empty house.”

The crack through which for a moment or two I had glanced at Edward Everett I now found to be of no use, for Lincoln had stationed himself just a little in front of it, and only his coat tails were visible. An instant later, to my great relief, he stepped back a pace or two and again I could lookup into that sad face with its furrowed brow. The brooding eyes now glowed with a stranger light such as is sometimes provoked by a fever. Then Lincoln began to speak. Word followed word so slowly that the value of each syllable was unduly magnified. ‘Fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation’ – here there was a decided pause; this pause I well remember because I held my breath, wondering what had happened to cause it – ‘conceived in liberty’ – another pause and more high emphasis, this time on the word ‘liberty’ – ‘and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’
Beginning with the next sentence he spoke more rapidly, but somewhere near the middle of the address he slowed again to the tempo of the opening words.
Now the group of Negroes off to one side, that had been wailing ‘Amens’ in an undertone, lifted their voices higher and higher as the simple eloquence of Lincoln moved them. A number of them were weeping; others with closed eyes repeated phrases of the address. The deep resonant voice continued: ‘…whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.’ These words were spoken very slowly indeed. With the next sentence he quickened his delivery, and when he came to ‘gave his last full measure of devotion,’ tears trickled down his cheeks, and I could not help some welling up in my own eyes.
Then he cleared his throat. With a large white handkerchief, which he drew from the inner pocket of his coat and allowed to dangle for a moment from his right hand, he brushed away the tears and mopped his brow, and for the first time, as I remember, shifted his feet. During the final phrases of the address I was thrilled as I had not been by all the previous sentences. It was certainly not what he said that made me feel so, but the way and manner of his saying it.”
With the address finished, the assemblage stood motionless and silent. The heads were bowed as were those of the Negroes, who now, with a long and solemn ‘Amen,’ were the only ones to disturb the stillness. The extreme brevity of the address together with its abrupt close had so astonished the hearers that they stood transfixed. Had not Lincoln turned and moved toward his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally there came applause and a calling, ‘Yes! Yes! Government for the people!’ It was as if the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west were echoing Lincoln’s concluding and keynote thought.24

Gitt’s comments were recorded long after the event, but Benjamin Brown French, who helped organize the ceremony, wrote his down almost immediately: “As soon as the hymn was sung, Marshal Lamon introduced the President of the United States, who, in a few brief, but most appropriate words, dedicated the cemetery. Abraham Lincoln is the idol of the American people at this moment. Anyone who saw & heard as I did, the hurricane of applause that met his every movement at Gettysburg would know that he lived in every heart. It was no cold, faint, shadow of a kind reception – it was a tumultuous outpouring of exultation, from true and loving hearts, at the sight of a man whom everyone knew to be honest and true and sincere in every act of his life, and every pulsation of his heart. It was the spontaneous outburst of heartfelt confidence in their own President.”25
“The President finished, abrupt so it seemed, and turned away. Desperately the photographer snatched at the black cloth over the camera, but he was too late. The President walked back to his chair. The crowd around the platform, watching the photographer instead of the speaker, broke into laughter at his obvious dismay in failing to obtain a picture,” wrote Lincoln scholar Robert S. Harper.26 Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “The extreme brevity of the address together with its abrupt close had so astonished the hearers that they stood transfixed,” recalled one listener. “Had not Lincoln turned and moved toward his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally there came applause.”27 The New York Times reported at the conclusion of Mr. Lincoln’s address: “Three cheers were then given for the President and the Governors of the States.”28
Whether the applause was as enthusiastic as Benjamin Brown French remembered it is another controversy. What exactly Mr. Lincoln said is another source of disagreement. Lincoln scholar Paul M. Angle wrote that President Lincoln spoke to “the question, foreshadowed in his first message to Congress, whether democratic government was capable of survival, or destined, by its very nature to destruction.” Boritt noted that “What Lincoln said carried the rhythms of the Bible. This was the music of the ancient Hebrew and Greek turned into King James’s English. This was the language he was raised on. ‘Four score and seven years ago.’ Psalm 90: ‘The days of our years are three score years and ten,’ one of the best-known sentences of the Book. ‘Brought forth’ is not only the biblical way to announce a birth, including that of Mary’s ‘first born son,’ but the phrase that describes the Israelites being ‘brought forth from slavery in Egypt.'”31
Mr. Lincoln’s words had symbolic and metaphorical meaning. Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Dedication, in Lincoln’s sense, consisted of several separate parts. One was humility, an acknowledgment that the dedication of the grounds was actually only a pale shadow of the dedication manifested by the costly sacrifice of soldiers’ lives in the battle that the world would little note nor long remember even what we say here. Another is devotion, taking for ourselves the example of those who sacrificed themselves, even to the last full measure of devotion.”31
Lincoln scholar Louis A. Warren wrote: “The evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s concepts about civil-liberty can be traced with the same precision as his development in the field of oratory. His lifelong passion for the freedom of mankind contributed as much to the universal acceptance of Gettysburg remarks as his proficiency in oratory. Joseph Fort Newton, prominent clergyman and author, attempting to account for the essence of Lincoln’s remarks, concluded: ‘Into those few brief words was distilled, drop by drop, the very life of the man.”32 Warren wrote of the phrase “a new birth of freedom, “Lincoln was conscious that a nation ‘conceived in liberty’ by its very nature, periodically, must be rejuvenated, rededicated, and even reborn, if it were to survive.”

There was never any question among those who heard the address as to when the President reached his grand climax. Colonel John Forney prepared for his paper an account of the high points in the speech and concluded with the expression ‘that this national shall have a new birth of freedom.’ General Howard, who gave the oration at the Soldiers’ Monument two years later, stated: “The nation has already experienced the ‘new birth of freedom’ of which he spoke.” Those not present who saw it in print, sensed the placing of the emphasis. Horace Greeley, in his New York Tribune, used the “Freedom resolution” as the outstanding pronouncement. Even the opposition press put its finger on the crux of the speech by denouncing the declaration about the “new birth of freedom.”33

The historic meaning of the speech was as deep as the speech was short. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote that the Gettysburg address involved “a configuration of three related ideas, all from the Declaration – equality, freedom, and self-government. Equality was the premier self-evident truth, and liberty, or human freedom, was a natural right that came from God. Lincoln’s political position, here and elsewhere, was that these two were ultimately interrelated, and that without a full accommodation of both, true self-government was seriously compromised.”34
“After the President had concluded, the Gettysburg Choir sung a Dirge, accompanied by the Band, in excellent style, and with great effect,” wrote Benjamin Brown French. “Doct. Baugher, President of the College, then pronounced the benediction, and the Marshals formed and escorted the President back to his lodgings, where he arrived about 3 P.M. After dinner, the Marshals assembled on foot & escorted the President to the Presbyterian Church where an address was delivered by the Lt. Gov. of Ohio. I should have said that for about an hour after the return of the President to Mr. Wills’s, he received all who chose to call on him, and there were thousands who took him by the hand. At half past 6 he left in a special train for this City, and arrived home about midnight. That evening, and the succeeding morning, a vast multitude left Gettysburg.”35
Historian Frank Klement wrote: “It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon when president Lincoln, orator Everett, and Governor Curtin arrived back at the Wills house in Gettysburg. Mrs. Wills supervised the serving of a well-planned meal for ‘a very large company.’ Wills then transformed his house into a reception center, placing Lincoln in the hall opening on York Street where he greeted guests as they entered and placing Governor Curtin at the door front on the public square to shake the guests hands as they were leaving.

“At the conclusion of the reception, President Lincoln, flanked by Secretary of State Seward and John L. Burns, an aged civilian who had fought with the Union troops in the great battle, walked to the Presbyterian church to take in the ‘Ohio program.’ After the program Lincoln returned to the Wills house to pick up his carpetbag and express his personal thanks before going to the railroad depot to board the presidential special and return to Washington. Later Governor Curtin’s special departed for Harrisburg and other excursion trains departed for their diverse destinations.36

The New York Times reported: “People from all parts of the country seem to have taken this opportunity to pay a visit to the battle-fields which are hereafter to make the name of Gettysburg immortal. The Dedication ceremonies were apparently a minor consideration, for even while Mr. EVERETT was delivering his splendid oration, there were as many people wandering about the fields, made memorable by the fierce struggles of July, as stood around the stand listening to his eloquent periods. They seem to have considered, with President LINCOLN, that it was not what was said here, but what was done here, that deserved their attention.”37
Lincoln associate Ward Hill Lamon recalled: “After its delivery on the day of commemoration, he expressed deep regret that he had not prepared it with greater care. He said to me on the stand, immediately after concluding the speech: ‘Lamon, that speech won’t scour! It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed.’ (the word ‘scour’ he often used in expressing his positive conviction that a thing lacked merit, or would not stand the test of close criticism or the wear of time.) He seemed deeply concerned about what the people might think of his address; more deeply, in fact, than I had ever seen him on any public occasion. His frank and regretful condemnation of his effort, and more especially his manner of expressing that regret, struck me as somewhat remarkable; and my own impression was deepened by fact that the orator of the day, Mr. Everett, and Secretary Seward both coincided with Mr. Lincoln in his unfavorable view of its merits.”38
Lamon’s interpretation, decades after the event, is open to question. Lamon later claimed. “As a matter of fact, the silence during the delivery of the speech, and the lack of hearty demonstration of approval immediately after its close, were taken by Mr. Lincoln as certain proof that it was not well received. In that opinion we all shared. If any person then present saw, or thought he saw, the marvelous beauties of that wonderful speech, as intelligent in all lands now see and acknowledge the, his superabundant caution closed his lips and stayed his pen. Mr. Lincoln said to me after our return to Washington, ‘I tell you, Hill, that speech fell on the audience like a wet blanket. I am distressed about it. I ought to have prepared it with more care.’ Such continued to be his opinion of that most wonderful of all his platform addresses up to the time of his death.39 Gabor Boritt noted: “People would later have it that Lincoln was let down by his performance and that Everett and Seward spoke their own disappointment to each other on the platform. With so many present, it seems unlikely that people could whisper negatives about the president. Yet it is also true that Lincoln was feeling low; he would soon take to bed with variola. Everett certainly did not mention the president’s remarks in his diary.”40
Several days later, Edward Everett wrote President Lincoln to “express my great admiration of the thoughts offered by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the cemetery. I should be glad, if I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes. My son who parted from me at Baltimore & my daughter, concur in this sentiment.”41 President Lincoln subsequently told friend James Speed that “he had never received a compliment he prized more highly than that contained in a letter from Edward Everett, written to him a few days after that speech was delivered and commenting upon it.”42
Wayne MacVeagh remembered telling President Lincoln “You have made an immortal address.” But Mr. Lincoln discounted his comments, saying: “Oh, you must not say that. You must not be extravagant about it.” MacVeagh said that when he complimented Edward Everett, the Massachusetts speaker responded; “You are very kind, but Mr. Lincoln perhaps said more tot he purpose in his brief speech than I in my long one.”435 Journalists present were not so effusive in their praise. Gabor Boritt noted that “however friendly the group of correspondents whose business was writing came to Gettysburg, few found much good to say about Lincoln’s remarks. Editors back home did the same. They printed the text. For most friendly papers, that was enough.”44 Boritt wrote: “How the president’s words were reported would impact how they were received. People often read papers out loud, and what they heard, if they read his remarks, varied widely. The reporter for the Boston Advertiser noted that the speech ‘suffered somewhat at the hands of telegraphers.’ Operators indeed made errors, decoding could be garbled, was again transmitted and further garbled, typesetters made horrendous mistakes, and so on. Editors added their skills or lack of them and had their ways with the text, even when friendly.”45
Lincoln chronicler Charles M. Segal noted: “Editorial comment on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address followed party lines. To the Copperhead Chicago Times, Lincoln’s were ‘silly, flat and dish-watery utterances.’ Massachusetts’ Springfield Republican called the address ‘a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression,’ and Harper’s Weekly commented: ‘The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart.'”46 According to Harpers: “It was as simple and felicitous and earnest a word as was ever spoken.”47 In 1913, British Lord George Curzon gave a speech at Cambridge University in which he called the Gettysburg Address “a pure well of English undefiled. It sets one to inquiring with nothing short of wonder, ‘How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?’ The more closely the address is analyzed the more one must confess astonishment at his choice of words, the precision of its thought, its simplicity, directness and effectiveness.”

But it is more than an admirable piece of English composition, it is an amazingly comprehensive and forceful presentation of the principles for which the war then was waging. It was a truthful recital of the events which lay behind the gathering at Gettysburg, and an interpretation of the spirit of the occasion. It joined the local to the national, the occasional to the permanent; it went straight at a declaration of the purpose which animated the soul of Abraham Lincoln, and for which the men buried at Gettysburg had given their lives.48

Lincoln scholar Douglas Wilson wrote that the Gettysburg “speech is an American original, like the man himself.”49 Wilson contended: “Having crafted and condensed his message and adapted it to an occasion ideally suited to a receptive hearing, Lincoln had maximized his chances for success. Once it gained wide readership, the Gettysburg Address would gradually become ingrained in the national consciousness. Neither an argument nor an analysis nor a new credo, it was instead a moving tribute incorporated into an alluring affirmation of the nation’s ideals.”50


  1. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks, pp. 252-253.
  2. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from David Wills to Abraham Lincoln, November 2, 1863).
  3. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, pp. 208-209.
  4. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 211.
  5. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, Noah Brooks, p. 253.
  6. Richard N. Current, editor, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln,
  7. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 191-192.
  8. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln (James B. Fry), p. 403.
  9. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 111-112 (November 18, 1863).
  10. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln , p. 514 (E. W. Andrews).
  11. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories , p. 226 (Wayne MacVeagh, “They Heard Lincoln at Gettysburg”).
  12. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp.112-113 (November 18, 1863).
  13. Herbert L. Caron, “Nor Long Remember: Lincoln at Gettysburg” , Pennsylvania History, October 1961, p. 367.
  14. David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer, editors, Lincoln in the Times; The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times, p. 189 (New York Times, March 5, 1861).
  15. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln , pp. 510-511 (E. W. Andrews).
  16. Frank Klement, The Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery and Lincoln’s Address, p. 29.
  17. F. Lauriston Bullard, “A Few Appropriate Remarks’: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  18. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 102.
  19. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 169.
  20. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln (E. W. Andrews), pp. 515-516.
  21. Helen Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, pp. 177-78.
  22. William E. Barton, Lincoln in Gettysburg, Foreward,
  23. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VII, p. 23 (Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863).
  24. Victoria Radford, editor, Meeting Mr. Lincoln, pp. 68-71. (George D. Gitt, “First Meetings with Lincoln in War Days,” Liberty magazine, November 1933).
  25. Benjamin French, Witness to the Young Republic, pp. 435-436.
  26. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 286.
  27. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 586.
  28. David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer, editors, Lincoln in the Times; The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times , p. 189 ( New York Times , November 20, 1861).
  29. Paul M. Angle, “Lincoln’s Power with Words”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 1981, p. 26.
  30. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 119.
  31. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, pp. 371-372.
  32. Louis A. Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration: “A New Birth of Freedom”, p. 6.
  33. Louis A. Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration: “A New Birth of Freedom”, pp. 112-113.
  34. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, pp. 233-234.
  35. Benjamin French, Witness to the Young Republic , pp. 435-436.
  36. Frank Klement, The Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery and Lincoln’s Address, p. 18.
  37. David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer, editors, Lincoln in the Times; The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times, p. 189 (New York Times, November 20, 1861).
  38. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 173.
  39. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 175.
  40. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 169.
  41. Harold Holzer, editor, Dear Mr. Lincoln , p. 134 (Letter from Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln, November 20, 1863).
  42. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Louisville Commercial, November 12, 1879), p. 411.
  43. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories , p. 228-229 (Wayne MacVeagh, “They Heard Lincoln at Gettysburg”).

  44. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 139.
  45. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel, p. 141.
  46. Charles M. Segal,
  47. Conversations with Lincoln , p. 291
  48. Herbert L. Carson, “Nor Long Remember: Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania History, October 1961, p. 37 (Harper’s Weekly, December 5, 1863).
  49. Robert Fortengaugh, Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, November 18 and 19, 1863, Pennsylvania History, October 1938, p. 243.
  50. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 236.
  51. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, p. 235.