To the editor:
As this 152nd anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863, approaches, I find it interesting to look behind the events and words to explore the significance of what happened the day the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery occurred.
Lincoln was not the primary speaker to dedicate the cemetery but was invited by the event’s organizer, David Wills, to “make a few appropriate remarks” with the unsolicited advice to the president to keep the remarks “serious in nature … and suitable to the occasion.”
The bodies of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg were being dug up and removed to the site of the new cemetery by F.W. Biesecker, who had won the contract to do so — with a winning bid of $1.59 per body. The task was so great that completion was expected only long after the ceremony. Bodies of hundreds of soldiers, barely covered with battlefield soil, still remained where they fell, mostly unidentified.
As is often noted but untrue, Lincoln did not write his address at the last minute while riding on the train to Gettysburg, although he may have altered a word during the time leading up to the address. Lincoln was first a lawyer, then a politician, and finally a statesman. Lawyers prepare, politicians plan, and statesmen change history. That is what occurred on Nov. 19, 1863.
Lincoln had in mind this purpose for many years and required only an appropriate time and place to bring it forth. Today we know those “few appropriate remarks” raised the moral plateau of the war and changed how many Americans viewed the conflict. There was now an ideological element as well as a military component to the struggle.
Beyond the preservation of the Union, the conflict was also being fought to determine if the proposition that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence had meaning, an issue that disturbed Lincoln for years. The war was now setting right the hypocrisy of “four score and seven years” where all men were not created equal — with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The war was now elevated to mean what Abraham Lincoln wanted it to mean.
To no surprise, the newspaper reports followed their political bias. The Chicago Times reported: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The Boston Evening Transcript noted, however: “Neither does he wield a polished pen; but he has a way of saying the fitting thing. But the uncut fragment is full of jewels.”
And so it goes.