Gettysburg's Good News
Schoolkids learn Lincoln's words at the scene of the epic battle by heart. But what did they really mean?
"The Good News." The telegraph, a new invention, spread the news across the land rapidly. Lincoln quickly understood that he had a tool to bind the nation together. But the opposition press considered it the start of his re-election campaign. No president had been re-elected in a generation, not since Andrew Jackson, and Democrats now intended to keep it that way. Even in Lincoln's own party, very few saw anything special about his Gettysburg remarks. The front page of the New York Times illustrated the press coverage. It reported the various speeches given at Gettysburg including, without comment, Lincoln's. Within an inch of the president's remarks the paper reported at much length on an address of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The headline: "A GREAT SPEECH."
All too often when the president's words reached the public, they did so in hilariously misprinted forms. In Lincoln's home state of Illinois, the citizens could read that the Gettysburg "ceremonies were the most solemn and impressive ever witnessed on this continent" and that Lincoln made a few "remarks," to wit: "Ninety years ago our fathers formed a Government consecrated to freedom." The Chicago Times started with "Four score and ten years ago."
"Now, we are engaged in the greatest civil war," wrote the Detroit Free Press, "testing whether that nation or any nation so consecrated and so dedicated can stand for many years." "Can longer remain," said the Chicago Tribune. "The dead will little heed. Let us long remember what we have," the Sacramento Daily Union went on, reporting "immense applause." "We owe this offering to our dead," seemed to appear everywhere. The New York Times, as many others, reported dedication to "the refinished work." "Refinished," as in a piece of furniture.
None of this was Lincoln's poetry. But the papers printed what they could or would.
And then Lincoln's speech largely disappeared from American memory. During the first two decades after his death, people erected 20 statues to him; 18 showed him holding the Emancipation Proclamation. Not until the 20th century would Lincoln begin to hold the Gettysburg Address in his hand. By then the country had abandoned its attempt to provide civil rights to black people, and the "new birth of freedom" got whitewashed to refer to whites. The meaning of the Address continued to shift from generation to generation, even as the beauty of the speech got carved into every schoolchild's memory. The speech grew into American Gospel, the good news of a free people, and how that happened is quite a story by itself. Not until the civil rights era would the direction of its original meaning come to the fore again.
Copyright 2006 by Gabor Boritt, from the book The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows (Simon & Schuster).