November 2019

Five Things You Didn't Know About the Gettysburg Address

by Ed Ruggero

November 19, 1863

OK, maybe you did know some of these things, smarty-pants. If you claim to have known them all, see the Extra Credit Problem at the end.

  1. Abraham Lincoln Didn't Deliver the Gettysburg Address

    The principal speaker was Edward Everett, former Secretary of State and one of the most widely recognized orators of the day. Lincoln was invited to make, "a few appropriate remarks." Everett was the main act ("Oration" in the printed program) and his speech, which recounted highlights of that summer's battle, lasted more than two hours, as was expected for a public address at the time. Lincoln's 272 words probably took about three minutes to deliver. The New York Times' coverage fawned over Everett's performance and closed the story with the simple "and the President also spoke."

  2. Lincoln Did Not Write His Remarks on the Back of an Envelope

    One enduring myth is that the President jotted down a few notes on an envelope while on the train to Pennsylvania. In fact, Lincoln was extremely careful when it came to preparing his public speeches. There is evidence that he had a draft of this one before leaving Washington, and at any rate he spent time during the journey with other politicians who traveled with him or met him enroute. Scholar Garry Wills, in his remarkable book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, points out the speech's classic structure, its echoes of both The King James Bible and even other famous political speeches, all testament to careful writing. And although he had a high voice and many easterners considered his Kentucky accent odd, if not abrasive, Lincoln was also careful about his delivery. He often practiced his timing by reading aloud long speeches from Shakespeare, one of his favorite authors.

  3. The Event Was in a Brand New Cemetery

    In July 1863 Confederate and Federal armies fought an enormous battle in and around the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, leaving behind thousands of dead. The governors of those northern states who'd lost men in the battle stepped up with funds to create a new Soldiers' Cemetery. The principal organizers were Andrew Curtin, governor of Pennsylvania, and David Wills, a local leader who became Project Manager Extraordinaire. Wills did everything from hiring the landscape designer and the laborers who moved bodies from their temporary graves on the battlefield, to hosting Lincoln overnight in his home the night before the event on November 19, 1863. (There were so many VIPs that the President was the only one with his own room. Governor Curtin's daughter shared a bed with two other women—and the bed broke under their combined weight.)

  4. Lincoln Changed the Meaning of the Civil War

    For Americans at the time, the Civil War was about preserving the Union (for northerners) or states' rights (for southerners). But if you ask a modern American what the Civil War was about, you're most likely going to hear "ending slavery." That shift in meaning did not happen all at once, but it got a big boost from Abraham Lincoln, first with a dry legal document called the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in January 1863; and eleven months later with his stirring remarks at Gettysburg. The central assertion of his speech is that our Founding Fathers created a "new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The war was a test not of the viability of a government by the people, but of the likelihood that a nation dedicated to equality could "long endure."

    In Lincoln at Gettysburg Wills puts forth a theory I find compelling: Lincoln argued that the Constitution is merely the set of imperfect (and changeable) laws we have right now to move us to some higher ideal, and that higher ideal (all men are created equal) is articulated in The Declaration of Independence. Lincoln reminded his audience and subsequent generations that we should never stop striving to be better versions of ourselves.

  5. Lincoln's Opponents Were Furious

    Lincoln pulled a sleight of hand, the old switcher-oo-nee, when he focused his remarks on the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Constitution. ("Four score and seven [87] years ago" takes his listeners to 1776 and that Declaration. The Constitution was signed in 1787.) For his audience, the war was about preserving the Union, the law of the land, which was and is embodied in the Constitution. After all, the President swears to uphold the Constitution, which, at the time, permitted slavery. The Chicago Times fumed, "It was to uphold this constitution... that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, mistake the cause for which they died." It seemed to his critics that Lincoln was trying to make the war about freedom for slaves. That was partly true, of course, and he was successful.

EXTRA CREDIT: It's 272 words. Ready? Go.

Ed Ruggero is the author of The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation For Success and regularly leads workshops on leadership as well as experiential learning trips to Gettysburg and Normandy. In The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, Ed uses the history of the battle to help participants discover the best leader they can be. See spring and fall dates for 2020 here.