The Gettysburg Address at the Library of Congress

The Gettysburg Address is a speech that was given by President Abraham Lincoln, and one of the best-known speeches in American history.  It was delivered by President Lincoln in 1863, at the dedication ceremony of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; just four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.  On the 150th anniversary of the speech, a rare copy of The Gettysburg Address, which is written in the former President’s own handwriting and is thought to have been with him when he delivered the famous civil war speech, was on display in The Library of Congress (MAP).  So that’s where I went on one of my bike rides.

President Lincoln’s speech, which he made four months after the bloody Civil War battle at Gettysburg that left tens of thousands of men wounded, dead or missing, is considered a seminal moment in the history of the United States.  However, it was not immediately recognized as a towering literary achievement.  And President Lincoln was not even the keynote speaker at that day’s ceremony.  The dignitary who spoke before Lincoln, Edward Everett, delivered what was scheduled as the main speech of the day.  The former Massachusetts governor and onetime Secretary of State was the best-known orator of the time, and took two hours navigating through his 13,607-word speech.  President Lincoln’s speech, a mere 271 words if you go by the version that’s attributed to Lincoln, took just over two minutes.

The speech was well-received by the public attending the event. They clapped politely, a few cheered.  But not everyone at the time agreed.  The Chicago Times called it “silly, dishwatery utterances.”  Journalist Gabor Boritt, who was present, said of other journalists that “they could not find much good to say about it.”  Lincoln himself said, “It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed.”  However, on the day following the ceremony, Everett wrote to Lincoln, and said, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”  History would eventually side with Everett’s opinion.

There are five known manuscripts of President Lincoln’s now-famous speech, and the most widely quoted one is the oldest.  The earliest versions were given to his two secretaries, John George Nicholay and John Hay.  Three were written after the address was delivered, and then donated to charities.  The Library of Congress owns both the Nicholay and Hay copies.  The five copies of the speech contain differences in text and emphasis.  Noticeably, the Nicolay version does not contain the phrase “under God”, which was later added to other copies Lincoln made of the speech – and appeared in contemporaneous newspaper reports.  The one I was fortunate enough to see at the Library of Congress is the Nicolay version, which is also referred to as the “first draft” because some historians contend that it was the copy that Lincoln read out at Gettysburg.

Interestingly, although one of the world’s best-remembered speeches, it includes the line, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”  So in the end, at least that portion of the famous speech was yet another example of a statement by a President that turned out to be wrong.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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