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Recalling Abraham Lincoln of the Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

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By John E. Carey

Saturday marks the anniversary of Lincoln's great Gettysburg Address.

The people of Gettysburg will celebrate the event of 1863 and rededicate the Train Station Linclon used during his visit.

Two speeches tell us volumes about Abraham Lincoln's wisdom, deep thought, enlightened oratory and patience. Lincoln's Gettysburg address and his second inaugural address, both of which were widely regarded as too short when delivered, are now deemed among the most memorable oratorical achievements in American history. Both speeches bear careful reading and thoughtful reflection, even today.

Most teachers and historians quickly get past the fact that Lincoln gave both these most auspicious orations following speeches almost totally forgettable in their substance and appropriateness. Both Lincoln's greatest speaking moments followed long, embarrassing, and sometimes rambling orations. And historians can find not one Lincoln criticism of his predecessors at the podium. Lincoln's self-effacing style speaks to his humility and his greatness.

Prelude to the Gettysburg Address

November 19, 1863, a crowd gathered at the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to hear Edward Everett of Massachusetts deliver an address honoring those killed in the famous battle of July 1-3. The President, Abraham Lincoln, despite the illness of his son Tad, had also accepted an invitation to provide a "few appropriate remarks."

Everett, a noted orator, had been elected to the United States House of Representatives and United States Senate, served as President of Harvard University, United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain, and Governor of Massachusetts before being appointed United States Secretary of State by President Millard Fillmore to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Daniel Webster.
At Gettysburg, Everett gave a two hour long oration. According to spectators, the audience was spellbound. But due to the length of the speech and the technology of the time, the exact words are now gone and forgotten.
Following Everett's speech, President Lincoln rose and delivered his Gettysburg Address, a speech revered and remembered by generations of American school children who memorized the text.
Lincoln began with the words, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent...." Speaking of the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers he said, "we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
As he concluded, Lincoln saw and measured the reaction of the crowd, estimated at more than 15,000. The president remarked to a companion: "It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed."
The next day, the president received a note at the White House from Everett, who praised Lincoln for the "eloquent simplicity & appropriateness" of his remarks. Everett 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."

In a note back to Mr. Everett, President Lincoln wrote, "I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure."

Drunken Vice President Precedes Lincoln

On March 5, 1865, the leaders of the United States of America gathered under the newly complete dome of the capitol building to witness the second inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. Customarily, the Vice President elect would first recite his oath of office and have an opportunity to speak.

Prior to the election, Lincoln had replaced his first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, with the governor of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. By choosing the governor of a southern state that had seceded, Republican political advisors reasoned, the president sent a strong signal that he would soon welcome the end of the war and the readmission of southern states to the Union.

History largely overlooks Lincoln's bold political move because Johnson, following Lincoln's death by assassination, became one of the most controversial presidents in our history. He remains one of only two presidents of the United States to suffer the humiliation of impeachment.

Yet Lincoln knew prior to the inauguration that Johnson may not have been of the caliber of other men available for the job of Vice President. Johnson asked Lincoln if his presence at the inauguration was warranted at all, and Lincoln confided in his friend from Illinois Shelby M. Cullom, "This Johnson is a queer man."

According to Johnson biographer Hans Trefousee, "...on the night before the inauguration, he [Johnson] celebrated with his friend [Senate aide John W.] Forney, with whom he shared many glasses of whiskey." Trefousse noted that, on the morning of the inauguration, Johnson had had at least three glasses of whiskey before his swearing in.

His subsequent speech in the Senate chamber that day proved a rambling, disjointed embarrassment-and a strange warm up act to Abraham's Lincoln's memorable second inaugural address.

Noah Brooks for the Sacramento Daily Union described the scene: "For twenty minutes did he run on about Tennessee, adjuring Senators to do their duty when she sent two Senators here, urging that she never was out of the Union, etc. In vain did [outgoing Vice President Hannibal] Hamlin nudge him from behind, audibly reminding him that the hour for the inauguration ceremony had passed; he kept on, though the President of the United States sat before him patiently waiting for his tirade to be over."

The New York World reported that the Vice President tried, in vain, to address many participants by name. In a comical scene, "Turning toward the Cabinet, he said: 'And I will say to you, Mr. Secretary Seward, and to you, Mr. Secretary Stanton, and to you, Mr. Secretary - (To a gentleman nearby, soto voce, 'Who is Secretary of the Navy?' The person addressed replied in a whisper, 'Mr. Welles')-and to you, Mr. Secretary Welles, I would say, you derive your power from the people.'

He even rambled, almost incoherently. "I am a-goin' for to tell you here to-day; yes, I'm a-goin for to tell you all, that I'm a plebian! I glory in it; I am a plebian! The people-yes, the people of the United States have made me what I am; and I am a-goin' for to tell you here to-day-yes, to-day, in this place-that the people are everything."

One member of the Senate, Zachariah Chandler, wrote his wife: "The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties and disgraced himself and the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech. I was so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through in out of sight."

The President later said: "I have known Andy for many years...he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain't a drunkard." Forney quoted the President as observing: "It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again."

According to observers, President Lincoln remained calm, if not sublimely serene, during the totality of his Vice President's embarrassing speech. Newsmen reported that Lincoln's eyes were closed during much of Johnson's ordeal.

At the end of the day, President Lincoln gave perhaps his best oration ever.

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

Only 701 words long, many at the time thought Lincoln's speech too short. But Abraham Lincoln himself regarded the Second Inaugural at his finest speech.

In his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, Lincoln demonstrated greatness. His polite demeanor and self effacing humility only add luster to his memorable words.

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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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