Nov. 19 marks the 147th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech — the Gettysburg Address.
The Gettysburg Address would never have happened but for the lack of grave diggers. In the sweltering August that followed the epic battle, the stench from the 10,000 rotting bodies left on the field forced the townspeople to stay inside their homes.
Some citizens tried their hand at the grisly task of cleaning, sorting and carting the corpses to the rail depot to be shipped to places like Massachusetts or Michigan, but the enormity of the effort soon daunted them.
They turned to their congressman for relief. His solution? Federalize the problem. Have Congress declare the battlefield a national cemetery and then the Union troops could be ordered to clean it up.
Back in the mid-19th century, the dedication of a new cemetery was a sacred civic ritual. This national cemetery would in addition carry the solemn gravity of momentous import. For that they needed an orator of eminence equal to the occasion. Daniel Webster was dead. But the Gettysburg civic fathers were unanimous in their opinion that only one man would suffice: Edward Everett, a distinguished statesman who, with silver mane of hair and booming baritone voice, looked the part and had the credentials to match.
He was a former secretary of state and minister to the court of St. James in London and to Queen Victoria.
The committee of town fathers discussed the idea of inviting President Abraham Lincoln, but he was not a popular figure in 1863. The awkward, folksy president wouldn’t do much to elevate the tone of the momentous occasion. But then some offered that the president never left Washington during the war — except to cross into Virginia to inspect the army of the Potomac. But if he got an invitation he would have to write a letter which could be read at the event giving the equivalent of a national seal of approval for the occasion. So an invitation was composed and sent. And to their chagrin, Lincoln accepted.
After some discussion, it was decided to ask Gov. Andrew Curtin, a close political friend of Lincoln in Pennsylvania.
Curtin, at Lincoln’s request, had convened a conference earlier that year in Altoona, a rail center near Curtin’s home of Bellefonte, for Northern governors to meet to discuss emergency measures that might be helpful to the Union cause. (Curtin, by the way, was a partner of the Humes, Curtin Law Firm in Bellefonte.)
My family’s ancestor, Edward, passed down the gist of Curtin’s meeting at the White House. “Abe, keep it short and solemn — remember it’s an almost religious occasion,” he said.
Curtin’s advice jibed with what Lincoln was thinking. He wanted to infuse some of majesty of the King James Bible into his short address. He would open “four score and seven years ago.”
His listeners would be familiar with the “three score and 10” in Leviticus that was the scriptural allotted human span of life and the biblical phrasing would send the message that this new experimental government called democracy had already surpassed man’s 70 years.
Then he borrowed from Matthew’s nativity scene, “Our fathers brought forth a nation” — not “gave birth to.” Lincoln, note said “nation,” not “union,” the first president to do so.
If these biblical references sound stilted by today’s conversational usage, remember they brought familiarity as well as majesty to Lincoln’s phrasing.
Lincoln, with a stubby Faber pencil sitting on his ear, composed six drafts on blue-lined legal tablet paper right next to the Bible. For the ending, he wanted an allusion to his favorite biblical verse from Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
He was closing with an important message that if the nation did not keep to the Founders’ dream, that all men are created equal, it would surely die.
Lincoln’s greatest speech was almost never delivered. On Nov. 18, the morning he was scheduled to take the train to Gettysburg, his wife, Mary, clasped her husband around the knees. “You can’t go. Tad will die if you do.” His youngest son was sick with a high fever. Tad’s brother, Willie, had died the year before. Edward, an older son, had died in 1850. Lincoln was torn. But with heavy heart, he took the carriage to the rail depot.
On the four-hour trip (for security reasons the train took a longer route), Lincoln kept to himself in one carriage. Onlookers noted he was distracted.
At dinner in Gettysburg at the Willis House, he did not join the conversation with the other distinguished guests. He retired early to his bedroom and prayed. An answer would come later in a telegram from Washington that Tad’s fever had broken.
The next day, after Everett, the featured speaker, finished his two-hour address to the multitude of over 10,000, Lincoln rose, gave his top hat to William Seward, the secretary of state, and began his address, never looking down at the speech in his hand. He would make an addition to his prepared speech, ad libbing one phrase, “under God.”
When he finished, there was no applause. The two minute address had more the feel of a prayer than an oration. He told Seward, “It didn’t scour, did it, William?” Seward nodded his approval.
Yet Everett, the American expert on rhetoric, said, “Mr. President, you achieved in two minutes what I tried to do in two hours.”
The speech might have had its genesis 40 years before. The 10-year-old Lincoln taught himself by borrowing books. Someone in his church loaned him Mason Weems’ “Life of General Washington.”
He read and re-read it by candle light in the cabin loft. One morning he woke to find the book destroyed by spring rains that seeped through the logs. He had to repay the farmer by pulling stumps from his fields. The ruined book was now his only possession.
One part of the book, however, remained intact. It contained a picture of a kneeling Gen. Washington in front of a stone memorial entitled, “Valley Forge.” Below it was the sentence, ”That these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Those nine words remained forever etched in the boy’s heart. And 40 years later he would recite them before the graves at Gettysburg.
James Humes , a former White House speechwriter, is the author of the recently-released book, “The Reagan Persuasion” and visiting historian at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
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