The Other Gettysburg Address

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Edward Everett was the main attraction at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  He had led a distinguished life serving as Governor of Massachusetts and ambassador to Great Britain.  In 1860 he had run on the Constitutional Union Party ticket as vice-president, attempting to forestall the break up of the Union that he clearly saw coming.  After the election of Lincoln he became a vigorous supporter of Lincoln’s policies to preserve the Union by force.  He would die in 1865 prior to the end of the War, but with the knowledge that the Union would win and the Union would be preserved.

He was a good choice to be the main speaker, still vigorous at sixty-nine, one of the most eloquent orators of his time, a time which included such speakers as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John Calhoun.  As he spoke it was as if the past of the country was commenting on its turbulent present.  He spoke for two hours and his listeners would have felt cheated if he had not done so, as lengthy speeches were expected at that time in American history on important occasions, unlike our own time where any statement that goes over three minutes is considered long-winded.

After his address he wrote Lincoln a famous letter in which he included this sentence that almost all Americans would agree with:   “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.”

Lincoln replied:

Executive Mansion Washington November 20, 1863

Hon. Edward Everett. My dear Sir:

Your kind note of to-day is received. In our respective parts yesterday,  you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the  little I did say was not entirely a failure. Of course I knew Mr.  Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was  eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages  in it which transcended my expectation. The point made against  the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose  principals are the States, was new to me, and, as I think, is one of  the best arguments for the national supremacy. The tribute to our  noble women for their angel-ministering to the suffering soldiers,  surpasses, in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone  before.

Our sick boy, for whom you kindly inquire, we hope is past the  worst. Your Obt. Servt.

A. Lincoln

Here is Everett’s speech, interspersed with my commentary.  It is completely our of step with our sound bite age, but it is worthy of our close attention as it sheds light upon his time:

[1] STANDING beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

[2] It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives,–flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe),–the last tributes of surviving affection. Ten coffins of funereal cypress received the honorable deposit, one for each of the tribes of the city, and an eleventh in memory of the unrecognized, but not therefore unhonored, dead, and of those whose remains could not be recovered. On the fourth day the mournful procession was formed: mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, led the way, and to them it was permitted by the simplicity of ancient manners to utter aloud their lamentations for the beloved and the lost; the male relatives and friends of the deceased followed; citizens and strangers closed the train. Thus marshalled, they moved to the place of interment in that famous Ceramicus, the most beautiful suburb of Athens, which had been adorned by Cimon, the son of Miltiades, with walks and fountains and columns,–whose groves were filled with altars, shrines, and temples,–whose gardens were kept forever green by the streams from the neighboring hills, and shaded with the trees sacred to Minerva and coeval with the foundation of the city,–whose circuit enclosed

“the olive grove of Academe, Plato’s retirement, where the Attic bird Trilled his thick-warbled note the summer long,”–

whose pathways gleamed with the monuments of the illustrious dead, the work of the most consummate masters that ever gave life to marble. There, beneath the overarching plane-trees, upon a lofty stage erected for the purpose, it was ordained that a funeral oration should be pronounced by some citizen of Athens, in the presence of the assembled multitude. (more…)

Published in: on November 13, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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