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Monday, September 07, 2009

The Gettysburg Address

Since I have family who live there, I've been to Gettysburg many times, and I've seen almost all of the tourist attractions that are there (and there are a lot). So it was nice, for my visit this holiday weekend, to have someplace new to go: the David Wills House, where Lincoln spent the night before he gave the Gettysburg Address.

The Wills House is right in the center of town, only a few hundred feet from the inn that my family owns, so it was easy for me to pop over. After careful restoration (for sixty years it was a drugstore), it is now operated by the National Park Service, and takes about half an hour to forty-five minutes to go through carefully. There are a few videos, and several objects to look at.

The story behind Lincoln's address, which is now perhaps the most famous speech in American history, is familiar to many. After the carnage at Gettysburg, hastily dug graves opened after rains, and the governor of the state of Pennsylvania convened a commission to look into a national cemetery to inter the soldiers (Union soldiers, that is). Wills, a local attorney, was named to the commission, and arranged for the purchase of seventeen acres on Cemetery Hill, the heart of the battle (and adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery, which interred citizens of the town). Eventually it would be dedicated on November 19, 1863, and Wills wrote President Lincoln to invite him to attend and "give a few appropriate remarks."

Much to everyone's surprise, Lincoln accepted. Presidents rarely left the capital in those days, and since Lincoln was involved in a civil war it was somewhat extraordinary of him to accept. He carefully drafted the speech (he did not write it on the back of an envelope) and stayed at Wills' house, where he finished it, despite being serenaded by enthusiastic crowds most of the night.

The main speaker was Edward Everett, a politician and renowned orator of the day. He spoke for two hours. Lincoln's address was ten sentences long, and took two minutes. It was not an initial hit. Newspapers, like cable news outlets today, were partisan, and several gave it an outright pan. The Chicago Times wrote: "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." Another, using Lincoln's phrase "a new birth of freedom," wrote that the country did not need a new birth of freedom, "but a new president." But others were more complimentary, including Everett, who at times was very critical of Lincoln, who said, "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." What isn't clear from the presentation at the Wills House is how, over time, the speech became as world renowned as it is today.

The speech had many structural sources, most notably Pericles' Funeral oration, as well as the King James Bible (starting with the use of the words "four score," recalling Psalms 90:10, which described the length of a man's life at "threescore and ten."

What is interesting to comprehend was how radical the speech was, considering how we accept it today. This is expressed in particular in the line, "all men are created equal." Of course that's in the Declaration of Independence, but it was a lie even then, as few who drafted that document would have recognized blacks and whites as equal. "All men are created equal" wouldn't have real meaning until the 1960s, but Lincoln was saying it, and meaning it, in 1863.

In essence, the speech redefined the purpose of the war, but it had an even greater purpose--it concisely defined democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people," and it's useful to remember that existence of democracy was in peril during the Civil War. It is difficult to envision democracy remaining, as we know it today, in a Confederate States or a United States should the war's outcome had been reversed.

After touring the Wills House (which includes the bed Lincoln slept in) I took about a fifteen-minute hike to the cemetery. I've been through it many times but it's always a worthwhile visit. I stopped by the monument to Lincoln, pictured above. Several pennies were lined up against it, and I dug through my pocket to find one to add. The spot where he gave the speech, or at least as close to it as possible, is now represented by the towering Soldiers National Monument. It's a place that should be visited by every American.


  1. I felt a little thwarted when I visited Gettysburg last year and discovered there is no "exact spot" commenorating where Lincoln gave his address, only the Soldiers Monument "nearby" as you said. You'd think someone would want to track down the exact location and put up some kind of marker.

  2. According to what I read over the weekend, the problem is the exact spot is now covered by graves in the civilian cemetery.