X
Story Stream
recent articles

On this date 158 years ago, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Washington that would take him to Gettysburg, the small Pennsylvania village stamped into the American consciousness the previous July.

The idea to invite the president there came from a local lawyer named David Wills, who had an agenda in mind -- a vision is probably a better way to think about it -- and it came to be. Moreover, his Nov. 2, 1863, letter of invitation seems to have inspired Lincoln's thinking about what his remarks should convey.

"These grounds will be consecrated and set apart to this sacred purpose, by appropriate ceremonies, on Thursday, the 19th," Wills wrote the president. "Hon. Edward Everett will deliver the oration. I am authorized by the governors of the different states to invite you to be present, and participate in these ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive.

"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," Wills added. "It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the great battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the battlefield are not forgotten by those highest in authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for."

I realize that I've written about the Gettysburg Address before. Truth be told, I write about it nearly every November.

Four score and 78 years ago, an editorial in the Patriot & Union, a newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa., dismissed Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as "silly remarks" deserving "a veil of oblivion." Even though the paper was a Democratic Party-organ opposed to Lincoln, that cannot have been the universal view in that newsroom. Yet because this blunder has been cited by historians ever since, it apparently stuck in the craw of those working for the paper, now called the Patriot-News, into the 21st century.

So on the 150th anniversary they issued a correction, of sorts, one that was both self-deprecating and done in good fun. That day, the Harrisburg Patriot-News apologized for "a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives."

Good for them. The Gettysburg Address, the Associated Press noted eight years ago, "is a sacred American text" so ingrained in the fabric of our culture that the phrases "four score and seven years ago" and "of the people, by the people, for the people" are as familiar as any song lyric or poetic verse.

What made it so is that in 272 words, Lincoln not only codified the purpose of the Civil War once and for all -- yes, it was to end slavery -- he also began to fulfill the promise of America's Founding. Historian Garry Wills (no kin to the Gettysburg lawyer) described the speech as "the words that remade America."

But they didn't remake the country completely, as future generations and succeeding presidents were forced to confront. Gettysburg has always been a crossroads in that journey. From the first reunions there that included Confederate soldiers until today when statues of Robert E. Lee (and "Lee's Lieutenants") are coming down all over the country, Gettysburg has been a guidepost.

Being compared to Lincoln is not something his successors relished. President Obama snubbed an invitation to speak at the 150th reunion, which perplexed even his admirers. Perhaps they shouldn't have been surprised: Lincoln is a hard act to follow. A reluctant Woodrow Wilson went for the 50th anniversary of the famous battle, but only after it was pointed out to him that failing to show up at an event perceived as a healing milestone between the Union and the Old Confederacy would trigger inferences that Wilson, a Southerner, didn't want to convey.

Congress had appropriated $2 million, real money then, to pay the freight of all the Civil War veterans who trekked to Gettysburg for the occasion. Some 50,000 made the journey, the highlight of the commemoration coming when the living remnants of Pickett's Charge -- grizzled men in their 70s -- reached across a stone wall to shake the hands of the aged Union defenders. (One highlight of the day was not Wilson's notably ineloquent and disembodied speech. "Who stands ready to act again and always in the spirit of this day of reunion and hope and patriotic fervor?" he asked the puzzled veterans.)

Twenty-five years later, at the 75th reunion, Franklin Roosevelt dedicated a new memorial at the battlefield. As war clouds gathered in Europe, FDR had reasons of his own to emphasize the unity theme preferred by the organizers as he lauded the fallen dead.

"All of them we honor," FDR said in 1938, "not asking under which flag they fought then -- thankful that they stand together under one flag now."

By the time of the centennial observations in 1963, just paying homage to the bravery on both sides was no longer enough. Then, as now, America was undergoing a convulsive period of reckoning over the issue of racial justice. A month before the 100th anniversary of the battle, John F. Kennedy, who had toured the battlefield in March, dispatched his vice president to speak there. Lyndon Johnson's remarks were pointedly different in tone than Wilson's or Roosevelt's. "One hundred years ago, the slave was freed," Johnson said. "One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin."

More than two decades ago, when Bill Clinton was president, I queried William Lee Miller, the brilliant and now deceased University of Virginia scholar, about presidential eloquence. Professor Miller said that as far as he was concerned, to be considered truly eloquent a president had to do one of two things: say something no one has said before, or state something in such a stirring fashion that it gets Americans to look at an old problem in a new way.

"It's a high bar," he told me. "It was put there by Lincoln."

On Memorial Day in 1963, Lyndon Johnson cleared that bar. His speech didn't soar with originality like Abraham Lincoln's, but the vice president was saying something chief executives had shied away from until then. He said that the time for equality between the races had arrived, with no caveats.

Perhaps those remarks would be forgotten by now if Johnson hadn't become president by the end of that year. On the actual 100th anniversary of Lincoln's speech, Dwight Eisenhower filled in for Kennedy in Gettysburg. The young man who occupied the Oval Office had just returned from Florida and was preparing for another trip, this one to Texas. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Comment
Show comments Hide Comments