Editors: To help commemorate the 150th
anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
and Museum offers this op-ed piece by one of our historians. Dr. Cornelius is
also available for interviews.
Triumph and Trivia of the Gettysburg Address
speech, now 150 years old, shows how even ‘trivial’ matters can have a huge
by James M.
Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago on November 19, 1863, has become
part of our historical literature. First spoken at a new cemetery in that old
Pennsylvania village, it has been reproduced on hundreds of thousands of souvenir papers, t-shirts,
bronze plaques and marble walls. It is a part of schoolkids' culture, of
aspiring immigrants' thoughts and of veterans' remembrances.
There are also
scores of teeny-tiny facts about Lincoln himself that day, and about the speech,
that fascinate people today.
Who were the
other 36 people sleeping in Judge Wills's house on the square that night? Did Lincoln give a
watch to your great-great-grandpa on the train to Pennsylvania? What was the
name of the president's horse in the procession? Is my fake parchment copy of
it the real thing?
Please do not
scoff – individuals care about these discrete details because hundreds of millions of people care about the
epochal events: the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 that killed more than
7,800 men, and the speech of 272 words that set this nation on a path toward
resolution. If you are serious about a subject, then you are probably serious
about some of its sidelights.
Lincoln himself cared about the tiniest of
nuances. That is why in the course of drafting his five manuscripts of the
Address, he kept altering words:
Good: "upon" Better: "on"
Good: "propriety" Better: "fitting and proper"
Good: "to stand here" Better: "here be dedicated"
"shall have a new birth" Better: "under God, shall have a new
sound better when spoken; some things read better when written. Some principles
need italicizing with the human voice. All things bear improvement. Lincoln the
tinkerer, the lawyer, the politician, the commander, the president, knew that.
Most of all, he knew that this nation needed a "new birth" to make
surrounding the Gettysburg Address are few and unimportant. His invitation to
speak was not a late after-thought. He did not write any of the speech on an
envelope. He did not write any of it on the train. He did not think it a
facts are bigger and better than the myths: he began thinking about his message
just 4 days after the battles of July; he polished it up the night before the
speech in the presence of William Johnson, a black man; he was ill with
smallpox for several days afterwards, and might have been feeling poorly by
November 18th. But Lincoln
was not skipping the trip on his own
account; he was certainly going to Gettysburg,
once the family doctor assured him and Mary that their 10-year-old boy Tad
would recover from his own bout of smallpox.
So, is it
trivial that William Johnson was in the room? Not if you imagine that Lincoln had that one person in mind while he was
writing to ensure the freedom of 4 million other African Americans; writing to
steel the nation's resolve to fight on and preserve the Union; writing because
"those who died here shall not have died in vain."
In our freedom
we can look up the trivial, but we must prize the big picture. All of Lincoln's
efforts have proved triumphant, thanks to more soldiers and citizens and
citizens-to-be than he could ever have imagined.
Cornelius is Curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in
Springfield, Illinois. To learn more about the Gettysburg Address and the
presidential library’s anniversary celebration, please visit www.GettysburgAddress150.com
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