Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address is a speech given by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on the 19th of November, 1863, at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The address was dedicated to the Union soldiers who died at the Battle of Gettysburg and were being reburied from the battlefield graves to the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The speech was not the main speech of the day, as the main one was delivered by the diplomat and orator Edward Everett. Everett’s oration lasted two hours and was made up of 13,607 words. It is rarely discussed today. On the other hand, Lincoln’s address lasted only two minutes and was made up of only 271 words. Because of its power and simplicity, the Gettysburg Address is now widely considered one of the finest speeches in history.

Lincoln opened the address by referring to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, using the now-famous words “Four score and seven years ago.” Then, he described the young American nation as having its origins in the love of liberty and the belief that all men are created equal. He said that the Civil War was a trial that would eventually prove whether a nation such as America would survive. Lincoln glorified the courage of the soldiers who died in the Battle of Gettysburg and urged his audience to make sure that the soldiers did not die in vain. The president added that it is the task of the living to continue fighting for what the dead died for. Finally, Lincoln inspired his listeners by saying that the nation would enjoy a new kind of freedom under God and that a government that places its people above all would not fail.

Before and After the Speech

President Lincoln was invited to give the address by David Willis, who was the head of the cemetery’s consecration and host of the visiting president. He had requested Lincoln to deliver some fitting remarks to officially dedicate the cemetery to the dead soldiers. On the 18th of November, Lincoln took the train to Gettysburg, along with his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, numerous foreign representatives, and members of his cabinet. While on the train, Lincoln informed Hay that he felt faint.

On the evening of the 18th of November, Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg and was brought to the house of David Wills, where he spent the night. There, Lincoln made the final revisions to his speech.

Twenty-thousand people flocked to Gettysburg to hear the dedication of the cemetery to the dead soldiers. On the morning of the address itself, Lincoln again told Hay that he was light-headed. After Everett’s oration, Lincoln spoke his ten-sentence speech. Hay noticed that while delivering the address, the president looked pale and tired. When the affair was over, the presidential party took the 6:30 pm train bound for Washington, D.C. On the way, Lincoln suffered from a fever and headache. This was followed by a long sickness accompanied by rashes. It was determined that the president was ill with smallpox and was possibly sick with the initial stages of the disease while giving his speech at Gettysburg.

The Five Copies of the Address

It is not clear today where Lincoln stood when he delivered the Gettysburg Address. Some scholars say he stood 36 meters from the Soldier’s National Monument. If this is so, then Lincoln would have stood at the nearby Evergreen Cemetery, which was a private cemetery. However, modern scholars emphasize the different copies of the address. There are five different copies of the Gettysburg Address, and each one of them has varying differences from each others and from reprints in newspapers. Each of these copies was named after the person whom Lincoln gave it to. Lincoln gave two of these copies to his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. These are now known as the Nicolay copy and the Hay copy. Both of these copies were written by Lincoln before or after the address itself. The other three were written by Lincoln long after the address and were mainly for charitable benefits. They were given to Edward Everett, the American historian George Bancroft, and his stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss.

Nicolay Copy

Modern scholars argue whether the Nicolay copy was the one Lincoln read from while giving his speech. Despite the ongoing disagreement over this matter, this copy has frequently been labeled as the “first draft.” The copy appeared in an 1894 article, accompanied by Nicolay’s claims that the first part of the speech was written in ink and was brought by Lincoln to Gettysburg. Nicolay added that before the day of the address, the president used a pencil when he wrote the second portion. The two pieces of paper have folds that match each other, fueling conjectures that they might really be the same pieces of paper that Lincoln pulled out of his pocket at Gettysburg. Other scholars disagree with these conjectures, believing instead that the original draft had been lost. These scholars point out that the Nicolay copy does not match the present-day texts of the speech. They contend that if Nicolay’s copy was the original, then modern copies of the address are incorrect. When Nicolay died in 1901, the copy went under the care of John Hay. Today, the copy is kept inside the Library of Congress, protected by an encasement with a regulated temperature. The encasement is filled with argon gas that slows the document’s aging and degradation.

Hay Copy

Compared to the Nicolay copy, the Hay copy contains a different quantity of words on each line and a different quantity of lines as well. It is written on a different kind of paper and shows revisions in Lincoln’s handwriting. These revisions not only included the substitution of words to make the sentences clear but revisions that changed the meaning of the sentences. Today, the Hay copy is often referred to as the “second draft.” It is believed by some to have been written soon after Lincoln made it back to Washington. Others believe it was written on the morning of the address, citing the fact that some words in it are not found in the first draft but are found in later copies written by Lincoln. As a result, those who believe it was the second draft maintain the possibility that Lincoln held it while delivering his speech. Like the Nicolay copy, the Hay copy is kept today in the Library of Congress, inside an argon-filled encasement that delays its deterioration.

Everett Copy

In the early part of 1864, Lincoln sent Edward Everett a copy of the Gettysburg speech in response to Everett’s request. Everett planned to include the speech in a collection of Gettysburg speeches he intended to sell for charitable purposes. The copy that Lincoln sent him became known as the third copy. It is now on display at the Treasures Gallery of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, under the care of the Illinois State Historical Library.

Bancroft Copy

Lincoln wrote the Bancroft copy in February 1864 at the request of the historian George Bancroft. Bancroft intended to include the copy in “Autograph Leaves of Our Country’s Authors” and sell it for a charitable cause. Lincoln wrote the text on both sides of the paper, so Bancroft could not use it. However, he kept the piece of paper. For many years, the Bancroft family kept the copy, but it was later sold to different buyers. In 1949, it was given to Cornell University, where it is now kept at the Carl A. Kroch Library.

Bliss Copy

When Lincoln learned that Bancroft could not use the copy he sent him, he wrote the fifth copy. This time, it was included in the Autograph Leaves collection. This copy was named after Bancroft’s stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss, who was the collection’s publisher. The Bliss copy is the only one that bears Lincoln’s signature. Also, it is the only copy in which Lincoln wrote a title and a date. Furthermore, Lincoln did not make any more copies of his speech after this one. This is why the Bliss copy is considered the standard copy of the Gettysburg Address. As a result, the version inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial’s south wall is the Bliss version.

At a public auction in 1949, a collector of art named Oscar Cintas bought the Bliss copy for $54,000. Cintas died in 1957, but before his death, he had expressed in a will that the copy should be donated to the American government. Today, the copy can be found in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

Influence on Modern-Day Politics and Popular Culture

The influence of the Gettysburg Address on American politics and popular culture can be felt to this day. It has kept its position as one of the most powerful speeches in the history of the United States. The phrases in Lincoln’s 1863 speech are often quoted today in various forms of media and literature. In 1963, 100 years after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King patterned the opening of his speech after that of Lincoln’s: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”