I learned something reading our new Levenger Press book on Lincoln and his five versions of the Gettysburg Address.
There was a reason Lincoln kept the speech so short (about 272 words), and it had nothing to do with a lack of something to say. He calculated—correctly—that his brevity would help carry his message the length and breadth of the Union.
As Doug Wilson, the co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center, describes it in the narrative he wrote for our book:
“In an age where newspapers were virtually the only access Americans had to news of important events, the great majority of Northern adults would have seen, usually on the front page, not just a notice of the President’s speech at the Gettysburg ceremony, but, because of its brevity, the speech itself in its entirety.”
Today we would call that smart viral marketing on Lincoln’s part. Just imagine what he might have done with Twitter.
It wasn’t just the length of the speech that mattered to Lincoln, of course. It was the words and their cadence. Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison asked Doug, himself a man of words (read his Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words), to talk more about how Lincoln crafted this most revered of American speeches.
Levenger Press: Even the first draft of the Gettysburg Address that Lincoln wrote—the Nicolay copy—is very neatly penned. There are few strike-throughs or cross-outs or incomplete sentences. How was Lincoln able to deliver such clean drafts of this speech?
Doug Wilson: My own view is that the first page of the Nicolay copy represents the earliest stage of the Gettysburg Address of which we have a documentary record, and as such is probably the distillation of an unknown amount of previous drafting. The evidence for the way Lincoln composed a consequential letter or address is only partly from the existence of earlier drafts, but largely consists of testimony about the way he took notes on his topic, preserving ideas, phrases, arguments, etc. on pieces of paper that served as the basis of his first drafts.
LP: Where are these original draft notes?
DW: Most of these scraps of paper, along with most earlier drafts of important speeches, have disappeared. The few examples that have survived, as well as his early drafts of letters that he retained as file copies, show that he typically made changes that added to, deleted from, or corrected what he had first set down.
LP: How do you think Lincoln wrote the Nicolay draft?
DW: A reasonable guess is that the first page of the Nicolay copy represents the state of the first half of the speech at the time he left Washington for Gettysburg. The second page was not written at the same time, does not actually fit the material on the first page, was written on different paper with a different writing instrument, and, to my way of thinking, is actually the second page of a different draft. In other words, he created "clean drafts" like the first page of the Nicolay to see what, if any, changes were still needed.
LP: Did Lincoln ever read his speech drafts to his wife for her critiquing?
DW: I'm sure he must have read drafts of speeches to his wife, if only because he liked to try his speeches out in the presence of a listener. We have many examples of his doing this, but I don't recall a well-documented example involving Mary Todd Lincoln.
LP: How do you think Lincoln inflected his “of the people, by the people, for the people” when he delivered the Gettysburg Address? Do you think he stressed “if,” “by” and “for”? Or did he repeatedly stress “people”?
DW: I know that there is some evidence that he emphasized the word "people," which persuaded Carl Sandburg and others to do likewise. I have always had reservations about this, if only because of the awkwardness of the resulting cadence, and prefer to see the emphasis placed on “of,” “by,” and “for.”
LP: Why do you think that myths about Lincoln’s writing of the Gettysburg Address persist? For instance, the myth that he wrote it hastily, on the back of an envelope, on his way from Washington to Gettysburg.
DW: I am tempted to speculate that any text that becomes so famous and familiar as to become the focus of a widespread common interest is probably ripe for myth-making. In the case of the Gettysburg Address, the myth of the envelope gained enormous popularity in the famous fictional story by Mary Andrews at the beginning of the 20th century. The strong impression made on readers by her treatment of this detail overrode the circumstance that it was not a verifiable fact.
DW: We have an abundance of evidence that Lincoln knew the Bible very well, that he could cite chapter and verse to an impressive extent, and that he read the Bible habitually while President, so I don't have any doubt that the Biblical sound of the Gettysburg Address, language and cadence, was influenced by his intimate familiarity with the original. I think there are other writings that carry the imprint of his reading of the Bible, the Second Inaugural being the most conspicuous case, but he was wise enough not to overdo it.
Now to you, dear reader: What has your own experience been in reading the Gettysburg Address? Did you ever memorize it? Has it moved you in some way? I’d love to hear your comments. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comments).