Lincoln Delivers the Gettysburg Address

United States #600 (1924)

United States #600 (1924)

On the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered what has become one of the best known speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address. The occasion was the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. In just over two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union sundered by the secession crisis, with “a new birth of freedom” that would bring true equality to all of its citizens. Lincoln also redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.

Following the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1–3, 1863, reburial of Union soldiers from the Gettysburg Battlefield graves began on October 17. David Wills, of the Committee for the November 19 Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, invited President Lincoln:

“It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”

Lincoln’s address followed the oration by Edward Everett, who subsequently included a copy of the Gettysburg Address in his 1864 book about the event (Address of the Hon. Edward Everett At the Consecration of the National Cemetery At Gettysburg, 19th November 1863, with the Dedicatory Speech of President Lincoln, and the Other Exercises of the Occasion; Accompanied by An Account of the Origin of the Undertaking and of the Arrangement of the Cemetery Grounds, and by a Map of the Battle-field and a Plan of the Cemetery).

During the train trip from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg on November 18, Lincoln rode with his secretary, John G. Nicolay, his assistant secretary, John Hay, the three members of his Cabinet who accompanied him, William Seward, John Usher and Montgomery Blair, several foreign officials and others. In the railroad car, the President remarked to John Hay that he felt weak. On the morning of November 19, Lincoln mentioned to John Nicolay that he was dizzy. Hay noted that during the speech Lincoln’s face had ‘a ghastly color’ and that he was “sad, mournful, almost haggard.” After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30 pm train for Washington, D.C., he was feverish and weak, with a severe headache. A protracted illness followed, which included a vesicular rash and was diagnosed as a mild case of smallpox. It thus seems highly likely that Lincoln was in the prodromal period of smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

While it is Lincoln’s short speech that has gone down in history as one of the finest examples of English public oratory, it was Edward Everett’s two-hour oration (“The Battles of Gettsyburg”) that was slated to be the “Gettysburg address” that day. His now seldom-read 13,607-word oration began:

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.

And ended two hours later with:

But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.

Lengthy dedication addresses like Everett’s were common at cemeteries in this era. The tradition began in 1831 when Justice Joseph Story delivered the dedication address at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those addresses often linked cemeteries to the mission of Union.

Shortly after Everett’s well-received remarks, Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes. With a “few appropriate remarks”, he was able to summarize his view of the war in just ten sentences. Despite the historical significance of Lincoln’s speech, modern scholars disagree as to its exact wording, and contemporary transcriptions published in newspaper accounts of the event and even handwritten copies by Lincoln himself differ in their wording, punctuation, and structure. Of these versions, the Bliss version, written well after the speech as a favor for a friend, is viewed by many as the standard text. Its text differs, however, from the written versions prepared by Lincoln before and after his speech. It is the only version to which Lincoln affixed his signature, and the last he is known to have written.

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. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Each of the five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address is named for the person who received it from Lincoln. Lincoln gave copies to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. Both of these drafts were written around the time of his November 19 address, while the other three copies of the address, the Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies, were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after November 19. In part because Lincoln provided a title and signed and dated the Bliss copy, it has become the standard text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Nicolay and Hay were appointed custodians of Lincoln’s papers by Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln in 1874. After appearing in facsimile in an article written by John Nicolay in 1894, the Nicolay copy was presumably among the papers passed to Hay by Nicolay’s daughter Helen upon Nicolay’s death in 1901. Robert Lincoln began a search for the original copy in 1908, which resulted in the discovery of a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address among the bound papers of John Hay — a copy now known as the “Hay copy” or “Hay draft”.

The Hay draft differed from the version of the Gettysburg Address published by John Nicolay in 1894 in a number of significant ways: it was written on a different type of paper, had a different number of words per line and number of lines, and contained editorial revisions in Lincoln’s hand.

Both the Hay and Nicolay copies of the Address are within the Library of Congress, encased in specially designed, temperature-controlled, sealed containers with argon gas in order to protect the documents from oxidation and continued deterioration.

Eyewitness reports vary as to their view of Lincoln’s performance. In 1931, the printed recollections of 87-year-old Mrs. Sarah A. Cooke Myers, who was 19 when she attended the ceremony, suggest a dignified silence followed Lincoln’s speech: “I was close to the President and heard all of the Address, but it seemed short. Then there was an impressive silence like our Menallen Friends Meeting. There was no applause when he stopped speaking.”

According to historian Shelby Foote, after Lincoln’s presentation, the applause was delayed, scattered, and “barely polite”. In contrast, Pennsylvania Governor Curtin maintained, “He pronounced that speech in a voice that all the multitude heard. The crowd was hushed into silence because the President stood before them … It was so Impressive! It was the common remark of everybody. Such a speech, as they said it was!” Reinterment of soldiers’ remains from field graves into the cemetery, which had begun within months of the battle, was less than half complete on the day of the ceremony.

In a letter to Lincoln written the following day, Everett praised the President for his eloquent and concise 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.” Lincoln replied that he was glad to know the speech was not a “total failure”.

The importance of the Gettysburg Address in the history of the United States is underscored by its enduring presence in American culture. In addition to its prominent place carved into a stone cella on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Gettysburg Address is frequently referred to in works of popular culture, with the implicit expectation that contemporary audiences will be familiar with Lincoln’s words.

In the many generations that have passed since the Address, it has remained among the most famous speeches in American history, and is often taught in classes about history or civics. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is itself referenced in another of those famed orations, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, King began with a reference, by the style of his opening phrase, to President Lincoln and his enduring words:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.

Phrases from the Address are often used or referenced in other works. The current Constitution of France states that the principle of the Republic of France is “gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple” (“government of the people, by the people, and for the people”), a literal translation of Lincoln’s words. Sun Yat-Sen’s “Three Principles of the People” were inspired from that phrase as well. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln has as its ship’s motto the phrase “shall not perish”.

U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts wrote of the address and its enduring presence in American culture after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865: “That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg … and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it.”

U.S. President John F. Kennedy stated in July 1963 about the battle and Lincoln’s speech: “Five score years ago the ground on which we here stand shuddered under the clash of arms and was consecrated for all time by the blood of American manhood. Abraham Lincoln, in dedicating this great battlefield, has expressed, in words too eloquent for paraphrase or summary, why this sacrifice was necessary.” Sadly, Kennedy would meet the same fate as Abraham Lincoln only three days after the Gettysburg Address centennial.

In 2015, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation compiled Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The work challenges leaders to craft 272 word responses to celebrate Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, or a related topic. One of the replies was by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in which he made the point that one of Lincoln’s greatest legacies was establishing, in the same year of the Gettysburg Address, the National Academy of Sciences, which had the longterm effect of “setting our Nation on a course of scientifically enlightened governance, without which we all may perish from this Earth”.

Scott #600 was issued in 1924, a coil stamp perforated 10 vertically printed on the rotary press using the 3-cent design portraying Abraham Lincoln that was first issued on February 19, 1923 (Scott #555). When the 1922 definitive series was first being discussed, a portrait of Benjamin Harrison was slated for the 3-cent denomination but was changed to Lincoln before designs had been approved. The 1923 first day of issue ceremony had been held at Hodgenville in Larue County, Kentucky — Lincoln’s birthplace — which was an extremely small town. It was reported by the town’s postmaster, R. B. Thurman, that only 500 letters or packages were mailed from his office on the day of issue bearing the new stamp.

According to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the portrait of Abraham Lincoln used on the state originated from one steel engraving “made in 1869 by an engraver of the Bureau whose name was not recorded. There is nothing on file  to indicate the name of the photograph or painting from which the engraving was copied. In 1899, G.F.C. Smillie, a portrait engraver of the Bureau, made a small steel engraving of Lincoln following a photographic reduction of the original Lincoln portrait.”

The stamp was designed by C.A. Huston and engraved by J. Eissler and E.M. Hall of the BEP. The first printing was in a bluish violet and is much scarcer than the later ones which had a more reddish cast. The coil version — Scott #600 — was not issued until more than a year after the flat pate sheets of the news design as there was little demand for the denomination, especially in coils. They were first placed on sale at the Philatelic Agency in Washington, D.C., and were not generally distributed until some time later. The increase in postal rates in 1925 for third class mail effected the demand for this stamp and they were issued in much larger quantities, especially precancelled.

In 1932, the first class rate was increased to three cents per ounce. Although a new three-cent stamp was issued, the increased demand for this denomination depleted all supplies of this coil stamp. Before collectors became aware of their scarcity, even the supply at the Philatelic Agency had become exhausted.

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