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His Greatest Speech: This Month Marks the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

July skies are fiery over a Union artillery position on the northern end of  Cemetery Ridge, the center of the Union line, where it joins Cemetery Hill north of the copse of trees. This position is overlooking the broad valley down to Seminary Ridge.
Robert Shaw
WUIS/Illinois Issues

One of the more misleading myths about the Gettysburg Address is that it was not properly appreciated by the audience who heard it or the readers who soon afterward saw it in newspapers. In fact, many of the 15,000 assembled at Gettysburg were profoundly moved. Edward Everett, who delivered the main oration just before Lincoln delivered his “few appropriate remarks,” noted that the president’s handiwork was “greatly admired.” And so it was. Isaac Jackson Allen of the Columbus Ohio State Journal reported that Lincoln’s “calm but earnest utterance of this deep and beautiful address stirred the deepest fountains of feeling and emotion in the hearts of the vast throngs before him; and when he had concluded, scarcely could an untearful eye be seen, while sobs of smothered emotion were heard on every hand.” When the president said that the “world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” a captain who had lost an arm “burst all restraint; and burying his face in his handkerchief, he sobbed aloud while his manly frame shook with no unmanly emotion. In a few moments, with a stern struggle to master his emotions, he lifted his still streaming eyes to heaven and in a low and solemn tone exclaimed, ‘God Almighty bless Abraham Lincoln!’” 

Some commentators immediately recognized that Lincoln had produced a masterpiece. The Philadelphia Press correspondent called it a “brief, but immortal speech,” and the paper ran an editorial stating that “the occasion was sublime; certainly the ruler of the nation never stood higher, and grander, and more prophetic.” The Chicago Tribune reporter declared that the “dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.” Other papers shared this high opinion. In the Washington Chronicle, John Hay said that the speech “glittered with gems, evincing the gentleness and goodness of heart.” The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin remarked that the “President’s brief speech is most happily expressed. It is warm, earnest, unaffected and touching.” In Ohio, the Cincinnati Gazette called it “the right thing, in the right place, and a perfect thing in every respect,” and Isaac Jackson Allen termed it “the best word of his administration,” accurately predicting that it “will live long after many more elaborate and pretentious utterances shall have been forgotten.”

The Gettysburg Address
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues
The Gettysburg Address

Men of letters were equally enthusiastic. Josiah G. Holland of the Springfield, Mass, Republican wrote that “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. We had grown so accustomed to homely and imperfect phrase in his productions that we had come to think it was the law of his utterance. But this shows he can talk handsomely as well as act sensibly. Turn back and read it over, it will repay study as a model speech. Strong feelings and a large brain were its parents.” James Burrill Angell, editor of the Providence Journaland former chairman of the Modern Languages Department at Brown University, confessed that he did not know “where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made at the close of Mr. Everett’s oration. It is often said that the hardest thing in the world is to make a five minute speech. But could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those few words of the President? They had in my humble judgement the charm and power of the very highest eloquence.” George William Curtis, editor of the influential Harper’s Weekly, thought that the “few words of the President went from the heart to the heart. They cannot be read, even, without kindling emotion. ... It was as simple and felicitous an earnest a word as was ever spoken.” More extravagantly, he called the Gettysburg Address the “most perfect piece of American eloquence, and as noble and pathetic and appropriate as the oration of Pericles over the Peloponnesian dead.” Sidney George Fisher, an aristocratic Philadelphian who wrote frequently on politics, thought Lincoln’s speech “to the point and marked by his pithy sense, quaintness, & good feeling.” A leading British historian, Goldwin Smith, wrote that “it may be doubted whether any king in Europe would have expressed himself more royally than the peasant’s son. And, even as to the form, we cannot help remarking that simplicity of structure and pregnancy of meaning are the true characteristics of the classical style.” 

The speech won over some men who had been critical of Lincoln’s rhetoric. In August 1863, Charles King Newcomb, a Rhode Island Emersonian, bemoaned the president’s “want of eloquence,” but in November, after reading the Gettysburg Address, Newcomb concluded that “Lincoln is, doubtless, the greatest orator of the age: a point not generally seen.” Charles Francis Adams Jr. thought the speech showed that Lincoln had “a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour which we should not expect from orators or men of the schools.”

Edward Everett added his voice to the chorus of praise, writing with customary graciousness to Lincoln the day after the ceremony: “Permit me ... to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” 

Equally gracious, Lincoln replied: “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.” 1


Michael Burlingame is an internationally renowned scholar who holds the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He has published 12 books on the life and times of Abraham Lincoln. His most recent work, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, is a two-volume biography that was 30 years in the making. It was honored with Gettysburg College’s 2010 Lincoln Prize. Burlingame now is researching how journalists covered Lincoln.


UIS Lincoln Legacy Lectures to Feature Talks on the Gettysburg Address

The 11th Annual Lincoln Legacy Lectures will be held at the University of Illinois Springfield on November 19, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. 

Martin P. Johnson, assistant professor of history at Miami University of Ohio-Hamilton, will present a lecture titled “Lincoln’s Journey to Gettysburg.” Joseph R. Fornieri, professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology, will give a lecture titled “Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith in the Gettysburg Address.” Michael Burlingame, who holds the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at UIS, will offer opening remarks, titled “The Gettysburg Address: Myths and Realities,” and serve as moderator. 

Johnson is the author of the forthcoming book, Writing the Gettysburg Address (University Press of Kansas, 2013). Fornieri has written several books on Lincoln, including the forthcoming Lincoln, Philosopher Statesman (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014). Burlingame and Robert Shaw have collaborated on a book of photographs and narrative about the Gettysburg National Cemetery (Firelight Publishing, fall of 2013). The authors’ books will be available for purchase and signing at the reception following the lectures.

The event will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. in Brookens Auditorium at UIS. It is free and open to the public; no reservations are required. Those who arrive early will have an opportunity for seating in the auditorium; overflow seating will be in Public Affairs Center Room C/D. A live webcast is also available for viewing.

The event is sponsored by the UIS Center for State Policy and Leadership, in cooperation with Burlingame. The lectures are cosponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Association, the Illinois State Library, the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund, the ECCE Speaker Series, Illinois Issues, WUIS Public Radio, the UIS College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Public Affairs and Administration, and the UI Alumni Association. 

For more information go to the UIS Center for State Policy and Leadership web site or call Barbara Ferrara at UIS, (217) 206-7094.


Illinois Issues, November 2013

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