Anniversary special feature
When it comes to the Gettysburg Address, even trivia can be
By James M.
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[November 19, 2013]
SPRINGFIELD — Lincoln's
Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago on Nov. 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.
the other 36 people sleeping in Judge Wills' 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
Please do not scoff -- individuals care about these 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:
Better: "fitting and proper"
Good: "to stand
Better: "here be dedicated"
Good: "shall have a new birth"
Better: "under God, shall have a new birth"
Some things 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 itself better.
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The myths 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 failure.
Indeed, the facts are bigger and better than the myths: He began
thinking about his message just four 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 afterward and might have been feeling poorly by Nov. 18. 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 "these dead 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
[By JAMES CORNELIUS, Ph.D. Text from
Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
file received from the
Cornelius is curator of the Lincoln
Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in
Springfield. To learn more about the Gettysburg Address and the
presidential library’s anniversary celebration, visit