Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Thursday, November 19, 1863 dawned cool and relatively clear in southeastern Pennsylvania. A crowd of some 15,000 persons had gathered for the occasion of the cemetery dedication. They looked forward to a day of martial music, with decorated bunting on the speaker’s platform, where Massachusetts governor Edward Everett, 69 years old and at the pinnacle of his oratorical career, was to make the keynote address. Everett was among the nation’s most respected speakers, a man known for notable remarks. More than a decade earlier, Everett had made 122 separate speeches about George Washington and had raised nearly $60,000 which he donated to help purchase Mount Vernon.
Washington, the nation’s first president, was revered as the greatest of them all. Now, less than three quarters of a century later, some of the oldest members of the great multitude gathered there could recall having seen the father of our country in the flesh. On this date, although it was not universally accepted as a great event, they would have an opportunity to witness the 16th president.
Abraham Lincoln was virtually a self-educated man who shortly would have to share the podium and speak beside the former president of prestigious Harvard College. Lincoln had first made himself a lawyer and later a politician, having grown from a family tree much smaller than either the great Washington or the renowned Everett. Lincoln’s family had migrated in part from Virginia but he had grown into manhood on the Illinois prairie.
Nevertheless, it was an auspicious occasion for everyone involved. The number (45,000) of soldiers that had been either killed or wounded in the great battle for which the cemetery was being dedicated was nearly four times greater than the total of visitors who had traveled to honor the occasion.
Attorney David Wills, at the behest of Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin, had purchased roughly 17 acres for the site that would hold forever almost 8,000 soldiers who had given their lives at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-4 of that somber summer. Gettysburg would later turn out to have marked the beginning of the end for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which as events unfolded would never again invade the North.
All of that was as yet unknown to the gathering citizens who waited for Everett while bands played through the morning until past noon.
Everett had been notified nearly two months earlier. Lincoln, the secondary speaker, was extended an invitation slightly more than two weeks before the big day. Committee planners had not considered the president as a keynote speaker but did eventually request “a few appropriate remarks” in view of his office. He spent considerable time preparing his speech, which he virtually completed as he traveled by train from Washington with Secretary of State William Seward. The pair was not universally held in high political regard that fall of ’63, especially by House Republican floor leader Thaddeus Stevens, who remarked that it was “the dead going to bury the dead.”
Finally, facing the sea of faces waiting for his oration, Everett began by noting “the broad Alleghenies” and completed the magnificent speech an hour and 57 minutes later.
Lincoln, still looking over his notes, finally made last-minute adjustments as he approached the speaker’s podium. As he began to speak, he sometimes looked at the two pieces of paper he grasped in his long, rough right hand.
The crowd settled in for the president’s remarks. Almost before they could respond, he was finished. Lincoln in 10 sentences, uttering only 269 words total, had spoken less than five minutes. As usual, he remained painfully modest about his own talents, saying that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here.” Indeed, he was gloomy on the train heading back and believed the audience had been disappointed.
Several major newspapers ridiculed Lincoln’s speech but Harper’s Weekly observed, “The oration by Mr. Everett was smooth and cold…The few words of the president were from the heart to the heart. They cannot be read, even, without kindling emotion. It was as simple, and felicitous and earnest a word as was ever spoken.”
Everett wrote of his sincere admiration for Lincoln’s speech, who in turn responded he was pleased that the great speaker did not consider it entirely a failure.
In the 150 years since the Gettysburg Address it has become a national treasure and a model for speakers. So, too, has the memory of Abraham Lincoln, which has transcended the ordinary and taken its place in legend.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.