An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Nov 19, 2013 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Dr. Elder, it has been 150 years, this Nov. 19th that President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg address. In your mind, why does this speech still have such an impact?

The Gettysburg Address is a truly remarkable speech. In an oration that lasted barely more than two minutes, Lincoln eloquently explained why the sacrifices made in the name of the Union were so crucial for the continuation of our form of popular government. It also spoke to the notion that the concept of equality would in large measure rest on the outcome of the conflict that had called for these sacrifices.

  1. Now, some facts- exactly where, when, and why was this speech delivered- what were the exact circumstances surrounding it?

The three-day Battle of Gettysburg in early July of 1863 had resulted in the death of over 3500 Union soldiers. These men were buried in a Presbyterian graveyard in Gettysburg, but some individuals in that community felt that a more fitting final resting place should be created for them. They had initially thought of financing the venture by charging families to reinter their loved ones, but a Gettysburg lawyer named David Willis suggested having the states that had soldiers die at Gettysburg provide the funding. This plan was adopted, and in October the process of transferring the corpses to the new cemetery began. The committee overseeing this project wanted to have an official dedication of the cemetery, and invited a former senator from Massachusetts named Edward Everett to deliver an oration. The committee also asked Lincoln to follow Everett’s speech with an official dedication of the cemetery. The ceremony took place in the afternoon of November 19, 1863.

  1. How was the speech first received back in those days when there was no e-mail or Facebook or t.v. or radio?

There is no agreement on how the speech was received. Some observers remembered only scattered applause, while others thought the ovation Lincoln received was impressive. Some in the audience thought that the speech was profound, while others felt that the speech had fallen flat. Newspapers that printed the speech and provided commentary on its content divided mainly on political lines in their estimation of the speech. It is only in retrospect that many people came to accept its brilliance. Perhaps the most fitting tribute came from Edward Everett, who after the speech told Lincoln that he wished in his two-hour address that he had as clearly stated the case for the Union cause as Lincoln had in two minutes.

  1. Was there any reaction overseas?

Clearly, Lincoln was writing for more than just a national audience. France and Great Britain had come close in the fall of 1862 to recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America, a step that would have made it exceedingly difficult for the United States to crush the rebellion. Lincoln therefore hoped in his address to explain why the continuance of the form of government embraced by the United States was so important to the fate of humanity. No foreign country reacted publicly to his address, but his message (and the continued success of the Union military) seems to have accomplished its mission—European powers never intervened in the Civil War.

  1. Now, there are all kinds of folklore- that the speech was written on the back of an envelope- can you provide some details or some insight?

One of the enduring mysteries about the Gettysburg Address is that we are not sure of what Lincoln actually said that day in Gettysburg. There are five copies of the speech, and all are slightly different from the other. Lincoln clearly had started work on the speech in early November, thus dispelling the myth that he wrote the speech on the back of an envelope on his way to Gettysburg. But it appears that he did indeed revise his speech on the back of an envelope on that trip, so there is a kernel of truth in that bit of folklore.

  1. My understanding is that he wrote this alone- he had no speech writer or assistance?

Lincoln would often read drafts of his speeches and ask the listeners for advice, but he wrote the content of those speeches himself.

  1. It is hard to summarize- but what was the feeling, the mood of the country at the time of the speech and then immediately after?

The Union had seen notable military triumphs in the summer of 1863, most significantly the repulse of Lee’s invasion of the North at Gettysburg and Grant’s capture of Vicksburg. But these victories had come at a high cost, and the nation had been troubled by a bloody riot in New York City over the draft. It was thus an optimistic but weary nation that Lincoln spoke to in November of 1863. That is why he needed to both acknowledge the losses suffered and explain why further sacrifices were necessary, much as Pericles had done in his famous oration to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. It seems to have worked—the Union would endure another 18 months of conflict, but would see it through to victory.

  1. Have there been any books written about the impact of the speech, and by whom?

Since the speech was so short, there are virtually no books devoted entirely to the Gettysburg Address. But because it is so significant to our understanding of ourselves as a nation, there are literally hundreds of books that discuss it in varying degrees.

  1. I know that you often deliver the speech to high school and college classes- Have you had it memorized, or do you still need notes?

It is a speech that is a reciter’s dream—short and full of vivid phrases that are easy to memorize. Indeed, I would say that it is the most oft-recited speech in American History, and rightfully so.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

You have covered the subject well!

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