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Local View — ‘Afterthought’ Gettysburg Address stands the test of time

  • Written by Don C. White

  Note: With the passing of the 150th anniversary of The Gettysburg Address, Palos Hills historian Don C. White takes a look at its significance.

  On November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg, PA — President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most profound speeches in his life and one that has stood the test of time as we study it yet today.

  The battle of Gettysburg was fought on July 1st through 3rd of July 1863.
  After the battle, the remains of the Union and Confederate dead had to be laid to rest. Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin of Pennsylvania soon saw to the establishment of a cemetery at Gettysburg for the burial of the Union dead. It would not be until 1877-1879 that the remains of Confederate dead were removed to Richmond, VA and interred in the Hollywood Cemetery.
  The dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was to take place on November 19, 1863. Edward Everett, the foremost orator of the day, was asked to give the main address. Almost as an afterthought, President Lincoln was asked to say a few appropriate remarks and that was how his “Gettysburg Address” came to be.
  There are some things that you may not know about the address such as how many copies exist in Lincoln’s hand? I didn’t know, so I talked with a fellow at the Lincoln Library in Springfield a few years ago. He told me there were five copies in Lincoln’s hand.
  They are as follows: Copy No. 1 was the Nicolay copy (one of Lincoln’s secretaries) which is in the Library of Congress. Copy No. 2 was the Hay copy (one of Lincoln’s secretaries) which is also in the Library of Congress. Copy No. 3 is the Everett Copy which is in the Lincoln Library at Springfield. Copy No. 4 is the Bancroft copy which is at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Copy No. 5 is the Bliss Copy which is in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.
  The Brancroft and Bliss copies were to be sold at the Baltimore Sanitary Fair. But Bancroft kept the first copy. Alexander Bliss, Bancroft’s stepson and a member of the Baltimore Sanitary Fair Committee, prepared an autograph anthology for which he handled the second copy, which he kept. So, instead of being sold at the time, each stayed in the possession of their respective families well into the 20th century.
  I asked about the “Wills copy” and was told there is no record of Wills ever having received a copy; he could have, but no one knows for sure. David Wills was the man assigned by Curtin to oversee the purchase of land for the cemetery, arrange for the burials and organize the dedication ceremony. Many years ago at a sale of Wills’ documents and books a copy of the address was offered, but it proved to be a fake.
  So, there is no copy at the Gettysburg Battlefield site. I do know that the Springfield Copy has been on loan to Gettysburg in the past. I talked with one of my roundtable friends and he was on a tour of the Lincoln Library and got to see the copy of the Gettysburg Address.
  Through the years other copies have appeared, but all have proven to be forgeries. If a copy were to be found, it would fetch a handsome sum — in the millions.
  Quoting from Gabor Boritt’s book, “The Gettysburg Gospel,” he said “In 1963, David C. Mearns wrote from the Library of Congress to Ralph Newman, a Lincoln expert and the owner at that time of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, that he had before him…a newly discovered Gettysburg Address. First in the keeping of one John Carter, It was next consigned for sale at Sotheby’s and then turned up as property of “Chris R. Ring . . . Mearns was dubious about the document’s authenticity, ‘I never confided my uneasiness to anyone else, but you chaps are different,’ he told Newman. In time, this simulated copy of the Gettysburg address appears to have disappeared.”
  Edward Everett spoke for over two hours on November 19, 1863. How many of us remember anything from his speech? Abraham Lincoln spoke for a little over two minutes. He spoke approximately 272 words (number of words from the copy that is mostly used today) and those words live on in our hearts and minds yet today. Are school children today required to learn and recite the address today? I certainly hope so.
  William E. Barton in his book “The Life of Abraham Lincoln” said this about the Gettysburg Address: “(It) is far more than a pleasing piece of occasional oratory. It is a marvelous piece of English composition. It is 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 its choice of words, the precision of its thought, its simplicity, directness and effectiveness.”

  For those who would like to enjoy it again, here is the Gettysburg Address:

  “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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot 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.