By MARSHA MERCER
Rarely has a president been so wrong.
“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here…” So Abraham Lincoln predicted in his brief, eloquent speech at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863.
The sesquicentennial of the Civil War mostly has commemorated bloody battles. Now we turn to the powerful words that shaped our views.
At Gettysburg National Battlefield Park, Dedication Day ceremonies are Nov. 19. A series of lectures, book-signings and other events Nov. 16 to 23 will commemorate the Gettysburg address.
The address is one of the most noted and quoted speeches in history, but Lincoln wasn’t the main speaker that day. The orator was Edward Everett, a former senator and secretary of state who delivered a two-hour address. We laugh about long-winded Everett, but, historian Garry Wills reminds us, in the 19th century lengthy dramatic speeches were a kind of performance art.
Four months earlier, on July 3, 1863, the Union had won the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. More than 50,000 Confederate and Union troops were dead, captured, missing or wounded. Bodies that had been hastily buried in makeshift graves on the battlefield were still being interred in the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
Lincoln had been invited to make “a few appropriate remarks.” His 272-word speech changed forever the way Americans think about our country and the Civil War.
“Up to the Civil War `the United States’ was invariably a plural noun: `The United States are a free country.’ After Gettysburg it became a singular: `The United States is a free country,’” writes Wills, author of the 1992 book “Lincoln at Gettysburg.”
In his remarks, Lincoln reached back to the Declaration of Independence to reframe the war as a fight for liberty and freedom. The nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he said.
And, “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.”
Lincoln did not mention the Emancipation Proclamation. In effect for less than a year, it had freed many, but not all, slaves. The war would grind on for two more years, but in two minutes, he assigned surviving Americans the task of renewing the promise of freedom for all. His critics were livid. Some complained that the president was deliberately misleading the public about American history. The country was founded on the Constitution, which had avoided any mention of equality.
A Chicago newspaper called the address “a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful,” historian David Herbert Donald writes in his 1995 book, “Lincoln.”
Donald says Wilbur F. Storey also wrote that the soldiers who perished on the battlefield died “to uphold the Constitution and the Union created by it,” not to “dedicate the nation to `the proposition that all men are created equal.’”
It seems odd in our word-flooded society that a few simple words could have such lasting impact. Our politicians blab constantly, their every forgettable syllable and gesture recorded, tweeted and analyzed.
In contrast, there’s no definitive account of the Gettysburg ceremonies. We don’t know when Lincoln wrote his remarks. Historian Wills dismisses as a silly myth the familiar story that the president scribbled his remarks on scrap paper on the train from Washington. At least five handwritten, slightly different copies survive.
The crowd interrupted Lincoln multiple times with applause -- or not at all, depending on who’s telling the story. The Associated Press reporter who transcribed Lincoln’s speech inserted brackets five times to indicate applause, but years later said he’d arbitrarily included the brackets and wasn’t sure there had been any applause, says historian Glenn LaFantasie.
Some say Lincoln thought the speech a failure. “That speech won’t scour!” he supposedly said afterwards. “Scour” referred to plows used on the prairies that failed to turn over the heavy soil, Donald explains. Wills says Lincoln was satisfied with the speech.
One thing is clear. When we read the address 150 years later, Lincoln’s ideas still speak to us. It’s well worth remembering the power of words.