Lincoln’s Memorable Address Not Always Well-Received

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

Four score and seven years ago. . .” There’s probably no American who cannot identify these first six words of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, now considered to be an oratorical masterpiece. But when it was given, many criticized the speech as being, at the very least, too political.

As we all know, President Lincoln, a Republican, delivered his remarks to consecrate the site of the battleground turned national cemetery in Gettysburg before thousands who had congregated to witness the solemn and impressive event.

Newspapers across the country and the nation immediately critiqued Lincoln’s speech which was 10 sentences in length and totaled 272 words. Some newspapers praised the speech while others dissed it. Reaction to the speech was either worshipful or scornful, depending on one’s party affiliation. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln, while the Democrats were the more or less loyal opposition (though their loyalty was often questioned).

It wasn’t just the Democrats. Here’s what the Times of London: wrote: “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”

In the South, naturally, Lincoln was vilified as a bloodthirsty tyrant. But his opponents in the North could be almost as harsh. For years, much of the Democratic press had portrayed him as an inept, awkward, nearly illiterate bumpkin who surrounded himself with sycophants and responded to crises with pointless, long-winded jokes. Many routinely referred to Lincoln as “the jester.”

The Chicago Times, pro-Democratic and anti-Lincoln, accused the President of “ignorant rudeness,” “boorishness” and “vulgarity” for including “political partisanship” in his Gettysburg speech.

“The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States,” the Chicago Times wrote.

The paper was especially upset about his statement that “all men are created equal,” and cited the three-fifths rule, contained in the Constitution, for counting slaves.

“Do these provisions in the Constitution dedicate the nation to ‘the proposition that all men are created equal?’ Mr. Lincoln occupies his present position by virtue of this Constitution, and is sworn to the maintenance and enforcement of these provisions,” the paper stated.

“It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dared he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges,” the Chicago Times wrote.

Even Lincoln’s hometown newspaper, the Illinois State Register, was especially savage in its criticism of the speech.

“Nothing could have been more inappropriate than to have invited the prince of jokers, Old Abe, to be present at the consecration of the Gettysburg Cemetery,” the Register wrote. “No wonder then that at Gettysburg, where thousands had congregated to witness the solemn and impressive consecration of a national grave yard, he should appear before a crowd with no other object than to create ‘laughter.'”

The following day, the Register parroted the Chicago Times’ criticism of the speech for its reference to all men being created equal. When “he uttered the words he knew he was falsifying history, and enunciating an exploded political humbug,” the paper stated.

Significantly, the Chicago Tribune, always friendly to Lincoln, overlooked the president’s 272 words of remarks at Gettysburg and focused on Edward Everett’s two-hour speech. “It is in the best style and vein of the ‘model orator,’ and will well repay perusal,” the Tribune stated.

Even the Harrisburg newspaper of the day, the Daily Patriot and Union, now the Patriot-News, chimed in with criticisms of its own. Editor Oramel Barrett wrote, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

The Illinois State Journal, also published in Springfield, Illinois, was more kind to Lincoln, reporting that after his Gettysburg address there followed “immense applause, and three cheers given for him, and also three cheers for the governors of the states” at the site.

But it was the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican’s editorial that reflected today’s view of Lincoln’s address. It said that 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.”

In 2013, the Patriot-News announced that it regretted the error of its predecessor and on the eve of the speech’s 150th anniversary, retracted the dismissive editorial stating that it should have recognized the greatness of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the time it was delivered.

The paper stated that it regretted the error of not seeing the speech’s “momentous importance, timeless eloquence and lasting significance.

“By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media,” the paper wrote, echoing the words of the speech. The editors mused that their predecessors had likely been “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink.” The newspaper ended its announcement in time-honored fashion: “The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

While some people think that President Lincoln took little time to prepare the speech for November 19, 1863, an assumption based on decades of rumors and folklore, others believe that Lincoln wrote the speech on the back of an envelope.

This is perhaps the biggest myth about the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln started working on his remarks shortly after the battle was fought in July 1863, according to Lincoln experts. Several drafts of the speech also exist that were written before November 19, 1863.

In addition, the President did not write the Gettysburg Address on the train ride from Washington to Gettysburg, another big myth that is easy to debunk. The draft copies of the speech are in Lincoln’s normal, steady handwriting. Historians state that given the bumpy nature of train travel in 1863, at least one of the drafts would have uneven handwriting. What is known is that Lincoln didn’t have a final version of the speech done until he arrived in Gettysburg.

Most significantly what is not a myth is that the Gettysburg Address was appreciated by Edward Everett who recognized the genius of the speech of which he wrote in a note to the President afterward. “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,” stated Everett who obviously knew a great speech when he heard it.