One hundred and fifty years ago today, thousands gathered in Gettysburg, PA for the dedication of a national cemetery for those who died at the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863. The three days of this battle left over 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead, missing, captured, or wounded. The country needed to heal from these great losses.
This image was drawn from a photograph of the dead at Gettysburg. At the time of the ceremony, some bodies were still rotting on the battlefields.
Speeches were the highlight of the ceremony, especially that of the event’s headliner. This headliner was known as one of the greatest orators of his day: a politician of tremendous charisma, eloquence, and fame. You may think you know who he was, but you probably don’t. His named was Edward Everett.
Mr. Everett spoke first, reciting a roughly 13,600 word, two-hour-long epic oration. He was followed by President Abraham Lincoln who spoke 272 words in two minutes. Today, we remember all of Mr. Lincoln’s words and none of Mr. Everett’s. Why is this?
Edward Everett was a highly accomplished preacher, educator and politician in his lifetime. Between 1825 and 1854, he was a Congressman, Governor, and Senator of Massachusetts; the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom; the President of Harvard University; and the 20th Secretary of State. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of Everett, his favorite teacher, “Nature finished this man. He seems perfectly built, perfectly sound and whole; his eye, voice, hand perfectly obey his thought.” Everett raised over $69,000 for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association towards the purchase of George Washington’s Virginia home so that it could be turned into a museum. All of that money came from speeches about Washington that he delivered over several years. That’s how good he was. So why don’t we remember his Gettysburg address?
First, Everett’s style of speech making (long and flowery) fell out of favor in the 20th century, whereas Lincoln’s style (concise and direct) became more common. What does flowery sound like? Try reciting the first two sentences of Everett’s speech out loud:
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.
Phew, that’s a lot of adjectives! Compare this to the first two sentences of Lincoln’s speech:
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.
Modern ears like the sound of Lincoln more than Everett, it seems.
More important than style, in 1863 and today, is substance. Lincoln’s few words made a clear point, whereas Everett’s long, meandering speech failed to do so. The New York Times reported on November 20th, 1863 that Everett’s speech was “listened to with marked attention throughout” but that multiple cheers were given to Lincoln. Everett himself acknowledged this when he wrote to Lincoln for a copy of his 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.” Everett’s speech recounted the entire battle that had just happened, argued against the South’s right to secede, and even managed to discuss ancient Greek funerary practices. Lincoln did not go into any battle details, or even mention the South directly, but rather reminded his audience of the greater point of the war, a “new birth of freedom.” At Lincoln’s funeral, those who eulogized him commented on the importance of his Gettysburg address as a landmark achievement of American speech-making. The New York Times obituary for Everett does not even mention his Gettysburg address.
If you want to read all of Everett’s speech (good luck!), check it out here. While you are at it, take another look at Lincoln’s beloved words from that day (here you can read transcriptions of the five versions Lincoln hand-wrote. They are all slightly different). You can even read an entire version on this commemorative scarf in our museum collection (that’s how short it is!).
And if you are not in Gettysburg today celebrating this anniversary, why not come see some Civil War artifacts here at the New-York Historical Society?