These are the times when I delight in being a book publisher. In our small cadre of
books are some mighty topics, one being Lincoln’s five versions of the
Gettysburg Address that he wrote by hand. I had no idea of the remarkable
stories they contain until we began to put together our book, Long Remembered: Lincoln and His Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address.
This November 19th marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of his address at Gettysburg. The President was instructed by one of the event planners to come to Gettysburg and deliver “a few appropriate remarks,” and that was what he did. How is it, then, that such a succinct speech—about 272 words—has held such mystery for so long?
And why does no one know for sure exactly what Lincoln said?
Shorthand and telegraph lines
One likely reason is because of how he said it. Those of us who saw the film Lincoln know that our sixteenth president had a reedy, high-pitched voice. Lincoln was hardly given to a stentorian delivery that would thunder across the field at Gettysburg. It would be difficult for reporters to catch every word, especially since they would have been caught off guard by the brevity of the remarks.
Another reason, according to Doug Wilson, the Lincoln historian who wrote the lead narrative for Long Remembered, was that most reporters at the time took notes but not shorthand. What often resulted were approximations of what was said.
Doug gives this example of how the Chicago Tribune relayed the opening of Lincoln’s address:
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers established upon this continent a Government subscribed in liberty and dedicated to the fundamental principle that all mankind are created equal by a good God, and now we are engaged in a great contest.
Enter Joseph I. Gilbert of the Associated Press, the hero that most of us have never heard of, to mostly save the day. As Doug relays, Gilbert was allowed to transcribe the text from the manuscript that Lincoln read from. These were the words that raced across telegraph lines throughout the North.
And that, more than once, encountered ERROR IN TRANSMISSION as they did.
Fortunately, it’s been possible to compare the A.P. text with the transcription by a reporter who was well-versed in shorthand. Scholars have been able to, as Doug writes, “arrive at a very close approximation of the words Lincoln uttered from the platform.”
Mystery vs. myth
What remains even more of a mystery is just what manuscript Lincoln read from. It’s a question that Doug and the other scholars in Long Remembered still puzzle over, and a story well worth reading.
But even if that mystery is solved, we still can’t be certain that Lincoln uttered every word that he wrote. After all, the technology of audio recording was decades away. The best oratory undergoes
eleventh-hour revisions as the remarks are being delivered. John F. Kennedy never made a mark on the pages he read from for his inaugural address, but he made repeated edits (included to his iconic “ask not” sentence) as he delivered it.
Better that we embrace these mysteries of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, though, than succumb to its myths. One of the most pernicious is that Lincoln crafted this masterpiece of near-sacred text with a few hasty scribbles, on an envelope, in the train that took him to Gettysburg.
Anyone who has ever toiled over a piece of writing knows better. Lincoln’s words may have been few, but they were written deliberately. Those sentences that fill one wall of the Lincoln Memorial were written not for the moment, and not for the day, but for the ages, by a man who cared deeply about words. Just listen as the actor Sam Waterston recites them:
And now to you...
If you’ve visited the Lincoln Memorial or Gettysburg, how did you feel when you encountered Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks”? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).