Old fogyish as it may sound, in my day school children were required to memorize the Gettysburg Address because it’s a brief catechism in the American religion of liberty. But the two-minute speech definitely got mixed reviews in the press of the day.
You see, Lincoln was invited to the dedication of the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg more or less as an afterthought. The leading orator of the day, Edward Everett, was the featured speaker and Lincoln was solicited only to provide some brief remarks after Everett had concluded his address. Lincoln drafted the speech on the train and in his room at Gettysburg the night before.
Everett’s address was a memorable two hour disquisition with classical overtones, including references to the honored dead in Pericles’ day. The crowd was restless when Lincoln stood up to speak and most people weren’t even aware that Lincoln was speaking until he was finished. Lincoln thought he had failed: “The speech won’t scour”, he said to his friend and bodyguard Ward Lamon, making a homely reference to a plow that wouldn’t turn the earth. “The speech is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.”
Some papers were hostile:
Chicago Times: “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”
Some were laudatory:
Chicago Tribune: “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.”
Springfield (Mass.) Republican: “Surprisingly fine as Mr. Everett’s oration was in the Gettysburg consecration, the rhetorical honors of the occasion were won by President Lincoln. His little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma. Then it has the merit of unexpectedness in its verbal perfection and beauty… Turn back and read it over, it will repay study as a model speech. Strong feelings and a large brain are its parents.”
But the speech did scour – as we all know. Which makes it all the stranger that our president didn’t bother himself to attend the ceremonies in Gettysburg today.
What a missed opportunity.