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.—Chicago “Times”
The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by…the sallies of that poor President Lincoln…Anyone more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce—correspondent’s notes, London “Times”
It’s a flat failure and the people are disappointed—Abraham Lincoln
On November19, 1863 at the Gettysburg battlefield, Abraham Lincoln delivered the immortal Gettysburg Address.
On November 2, Lincoln received an invitation from the committee in charge to attend a dedication ceremony of the cemetery at Gettysburg. The President was almost an afterthought, as the committee did not want the dedication to be a political affair of partisan appeals and Lincoln generally declined speaking engagements as he didn’t have time for them. Some members had doubts “as to his ability to speak upon such a grave and solemn occasion.” The invitation reminded the President that ceremonies would “doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive” and “It is the desire that after the oration [of Edward Everett], you, as Chief Executive on the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”
The implication was clear to Lincoln: Keep it short. Presidential duties kept Lincoln from putting anything of substance on paper but he probably began composing the speech in his own mind when he did have interludes of privacy. Lincoln did confide to a friend Noah Brooks that his speech was going to be “short, short, short.”
Lincoln left the White House and boarded a special four-car train to Gettysburg on November 18. Enroute, Lincoln excused himself from conversation with company. “Gentlemen, this is all very pleasant but the people will expect me to say something to them tomorrow, and I must give the matter some thought.” He retreated to his private compartment.
Lincoln spent the night in the home of Judge David Wills, on the town square. He completed the working draft of his speech before going to bed.
The next day notables including the President assembled on the square at 10:00 and an hour later the procession moved to Cemetery Hill where the dedication would take place. The bloodiest battle of the Civil War was yet evident. On-going burials were suspended for the day. (The graves were contracted at $1.59 per body.) Buttons, spent bullets, and random equipment still scattered the ground, bearing a mute testimony of the carnage, later to become souvenirs.
After Lincoln concluded his 272-word speech with what one observer said was “almost shocking brevity” the applause was delayed and then sparse, as if trying to be polite.
Scathing criticism of the speech was mostly along partisan loyalties. It wasn’t long before editors recognized the speech as outstanding oratory. One remarked it was “deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.” Another said it was “the right thing in the right place, and a perfect thing in every respect.”
In a letter to Lincoln the next day Edward Everett wrote “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” At his request, Lincoln wrote the address and gave it Everett. He wrote about six such copies, and there are at least five “original” copies of the Gettysburg Address in collections. The copy Lincoln composed for the speech is in the Congressional Library. The address is also inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial.