How the Press Responded to The Gettysburg Address


The following notes are excerpted from an article which originally appeared in Redbook Magazine , June, 1936. That article was written by Carl Sandburg and was condensed in Reader's Digest with the title Lincoln Goes To Gettysburg in their July, 1936 issue.   The complete text of the speech is printed below.

The featured speaker of the day was Edward Everett, a renowned speaker at that time. He had been Governor of Massachusetts, Ambassador to Great Britain, and President of Harvard. He was given two months to prepare what was to be the keynote speech of the day.

The decision to even invite Lincoln was made only after some controversy. As one of the Pennsylvania commissioners later wrote, "The question was raised as to his ability to speak on such a solemn occasion; the invitation was not settled upon until about two weeks before the exercises were held."

At that time Lincoln was unpopular in many circles. Many thought that he had no chance of being re-elected. In fact, Thaddeus Stevens, Republican floor leader in the House stated, "The Dead going to bury the dead." Everett was 45 minutes late when he arrived. When he was introduced, he bowed low to Lincoln and the other dignitaries. He informed the 15,000 people in attendance about how the Greeks cared for their dead who fell in battle; talked of how the war had begun; of various decisive details of the three day battle so recently fought; denounced the principle of state sovereignty; compared American and European history and finished saying, "The whole earth is the sepulcher of illustrious men." He had talked for just under two hours. It was the effort of his life and he had put into it all that he had learned of public speaking in his entire career. When Lincoln rose to speak, he put on his steel-bowed eyeglasses, rose, and holding the two sheets upon which he had written, re-written, crossed out, and corrected repeatedly, he delivered his address in his high-pitched and clear carrying voice. A photographer bustled with his equipment, but before he could get his head under the cloth hood, Lincoln had said, " the people and for the people." The time for what would have been a truly historic photograph was past.

The nine sentences of the Address were spoken in only five minutes, and the applause was merely formal -- a tribute to the occasion, to Lincoln's high office, by people who had already been sitting for three hours.

That evening, Lincoln took his train back to Washington. He felt that he had failed, that all he had given were ordinary garden-variety dedicatory comments. He was reported to have said, "That speech was a flat failure, and the people were disappointed."

Most of the reaction of the newspapers of the day were far less charitable. The Patriot and Union of nearby Harrisburg had its say, "The President acted without sense and without constraint in a panorama that was gotten up more for the benefit of his party than for the honor of the deed....We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of."

The Chicago Times put it this way, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." Even the correspondent of the London Times blasted the speech, "Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce." There were a few, however, who recognized the brilliance of what they had heard. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune was prophetic in his report, "The dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of men."

The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that there were thousands who would not read the elaborate oration of Everett but would read the President's few words, "...and not many will do it without a moistening of the eye and a swelling of the heart."

Perhaps one of the best evaluations was given by a writer in the Harper's Weekly, "The oration by Mr. Everett was smooth and cold. . . .The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart. They cannot be read, even, without kindling emotion. 'The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.' It was as simple and felicitous and earnest a word as was ever spoken."

The next day, Edward Everett wrote a note to President Lincoln in which he said, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."





Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

- Abraham Lincoln
Nov. 19, 1863

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