Today is the 150 year anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s words have been immortalized in print and film, most recently by Ken Burns, who recruited Republicans, Democrats, and Steven Colbert to recite the address. Since it was delivered, the Gettysburg Address has stood the test of time as a legendary and powerful piece of prose.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, upon reading a newspaper account of the event, was struck by the writing, calling it, “admirable”, while Ernest Hemingway, himself a lover of brevity, noted that, “it wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”
Even when you take away the famous commentators and celebrity reciters, the address is a profound piece that remains simple enough for any person to understand. Lincoln’s words, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work,” can be be applied to almost any context.
However, while Abraham Lincoln is remembered today, history tends to forget the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony: Edward Everett.
Edward Everett was born in Dorchester, Mass. in 1794. He attended a school run by Ezekiel Webster, and Everett later befriended Ezekiel’s brother Daniel Webster, one of the most famous orators in American history. He showed great promise at an early age and was admitted to Harvard at the age of 13. By the age of 21, Everett was a professor of Greek literature at Harvard. While on sabbatical in Germany, Everett was awarded a PhD by the University of Göttingen, becoming the first American to achieve that level of education.
Everett honed his speaking skills while at Harvard and spoke strongly for the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. Of course, this endeared him to the Greek people, who decided to hang Everett’s portrait in the National History Museum in Athens.
You get the picture. This guy was smart with a capital “S.” The dude taught Ralph Waldo Emerson! Everett could name drop with the best of them, but a career as a professor wasn’t lively enough for the man, so he turned to politics. Among other positions, he served in the House of Representatives, as governor of Massachusetts, ambassador to Great Britain, and secretary of state.
It was no wonder that he was asked to deliver the keynote speech at Gettysburg. The guy was one of the most respected humans on the planet and according to Emerson, Everett’s voice, “was the most mellow and beautiful and correct of all instruments of the time.”
As a man with a great passion for antiquity, Everett began his address by evoking images of Greek heroes who had perished and asking the crowd to imagine, “if those who sleep beneath our feet, and their gallant comrades who survive to serve their country on other fields of danger, had failed in their duty on those memorable days.” He went on to give a play-by-play of the events of the battle, which in my own reading seems to be rather long winded. The listeners might have been a bit miffed after his account, as he remarked, “no words can adequately depict [the battle] to those who have not witnessed it.” Well, good thing you spent all those words on an inadequate depiction, grumbled a few.
The final third of the address was quite politically charged. Everett called out the Confederates and criticized their rationale behind the war, stating that while states did have certain rights, “to speak of the right of an individual State to secede… is simple nonsense.” While he labels the Confederates as “wretches” and “rebels,” comments on slavery are noticeably absent from Everett’s speech. One of his few references to the institution is only in regards to the provocative actions of the South toward free slaves: “scourging and selling into slavery free colored men from the North who fall into their hands.”
Everett ended his address, which lasted a whopping two hours, with a poignant reflection:
[W]e bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates The Battles of Gettysburg.
Everett was followed by a musical number, then President Lincoln stood up to speak. He only took a few minutes, but Everett later wrote to Lincoln, “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.”
Edward Everett passed away two years after he delivered the his Gettysburg Address. He caught a cold after giving a speech to raise money for the poor in Savannah and died six days later. He was a wise man, a powerful speaker, and had a compassionate heart. However, he is simply remembered by many as the man who was upstaged by Lincoln’s two minutes of brilliance.