“You know when Abraham Lincoln made the Gettysburg Address speech, the great speech. Do you know he was ridiculed? ... And he was excoriated by the fake news ... they said it was a terrible, terrible speech.”
- US President Donald Trump,
speech at Billings, Montana, September 6, 2018.
Is he right?
About the Gettysburg Address:
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered during the American Civil War at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln's short speech has come to be seen as one of the greatest and most influential statements of American national purpose, Lincoln reiterating the principles of human equality set out by the Declaration of Independence. He proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union sundered by the secession crisis and also redefined it as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War. The battle involved the largest number of casualties of the entire war and is often described as the war's turning point. Union Maj. Gen. George Meade's Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, halting Lee's invasion of the North.
The two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing. While Confederate casualties are more difficult to estimate, recent works have suggested Confederate casualties as 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing).
The dedication program:
Lincoln was not the main speaker at the Gettysburg dedication, that honour went to renowned orator William Everett. The program was:
Music, by Birgfeld's Band ("Homage d'uns Heros" by Adolph Birgfeld)
Prayer, by Reverend T. H. Stockton, D.D.
Music, by the Marine Band ("Old Hundred"), directed by Francis Scala
Oration, by Hon. Edward Everett ("The Battles of Gettysburg")
Music, Hymn ("Consecration Chant") by B. B. French, Esq., music by Wilson G Horner, sung by Baltimore Glee Club
Dedicatory Remarks, by the President of the United States
Dirge ("Oh! It is Great for Our Country to Die", words by James G. Percival, music by Alfred Delaney), sung by Choir selected for the occasion
Benediction, by Reverend H. L. Baugher, D.D.
Everett’s two-hour oration was consistent with the form of orations at the time. He referred to such events as the Battle of Marathon and the Wars of the Roses to place the Union dead at Gettysburg into the noble historical tradition of those who defended the right, even against long odds and in civil wars.
By way of sample, here is his opening paragraph:
Standing beneath this serene sky, 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. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;—grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.
This is the closing paragraph:
But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.
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.
Is President Trump right that Lincoln was ridiculed for his speech?
In a letter to Lincoln written the following day, Everett praised the President for his eloquent and concise speech, saying, "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." Lincoln replied that he was glad to know the speech was not a "total failure".
Other public reaction to the speech was divided along partisan lines. The Democratic-leaning Chicago Times observed, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." In contrast, the Republican-leaning The New York Times was complimentary and printed the speech. In Massachusetts, the Springfield Republican also printed the entire speech, calling it "a perfect gem" that was "deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma". The Republican predicted that Lincoln's brief remarks would "repay further study as the model speech". On the sesquicentennial of the address, The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, formerly the Patriot & Union, retracted its original reaction ("silly remarks" deserving "the veil of oblivion") stating: "Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives. ... the Patriot & Union failed to recognize [the speech's] momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error."
Foreign newspapers also criticized Lincoln's remarks. The Times of London commented: "The ceremony [at Gettysburg] was rendered ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln."
One of the reasons for the negative reviews of Lincoln’s speech and its unfavourable reception by some was its brevity, a departure from the standard style of oration of the day, It resulted in silence at its end and some delayed clapping by some persons at various locations in the crowd.
During the train trip from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg on November 18, Lincoln remarked to John Hay, his assistant secretary, that he felt weak. On the morning of November 19, Lincoln mentioned to John Nicolay, his secretary, that he was dizzy. In the railroad car the President rode with Nicolay, Hay, the three members of his Cabinet who accompanied him, William Seward, John Usher and Montgomery Blair, several foreign officials and others. Hay noted that during the speech Lincoln's face had 'a ghastly color' and that he was 'sad, mournful, almost haggard.' After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30 pm train for Washington, D.C., he was feverish and weak, with a severe headache. A protracted illness followed, which included a vesicular rash and was diagnosed as a mild case of smallpox. It thus seems highly likely that Lincoln was in the prodromal* period of smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg address.
* prodromal: early signs or symptoms
The only known and confirmed photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was taken by photographer David Bachrach and was identified in the Mathew Brady collection of photographic plates in the National Archives and Records Administration in 1952.
The original uncropped photo of the speakers stand at Gettysburg
Cropped view of the Bachrach photo, with a red arrow indicating Lincoln.