The Gettysburg Address and how history came to know (and argue over) its immortal words
There are five known drafts of the speech in Lincoln's own handwriting, each different from the other in some subtle or not-so-subtle way. The last, penned in March 1864, is the version chiseled in marble on the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1894, Lincoln's personal secretary, John Nicolay, published what he called "the autograph manuscript" of the Gettysburg Address. The first page was written in pen on lined stationery marked "Executive Mansion"; the second is in pencil on bluish foolscap.
Johnson, an assistant history professor at Miami University in Ohio, concludes that this is the delivery or "battlefield draft" Lincoln pulled from his coat on the platform that day. John R. Sellers, curator of Civil War papers at the Library of Congress, which recently put the pages on display, agrees.
But historian Gabor Boritt, author of "The Gettysburg Gospel," argues that a version discovered in 1908 among the papers of John M. Hay, Lincoln's assistant secretary, is the one from which the president read.
Perhaps the most important difference among the address's various permutations is the presence or absence of the phrase "under God."
Those words do not appear in either the Nicolay or Hay drafts, but they are present in the three other handwritten copies Lincoln produced for use in fundraising efforts.
They also appear in dispatches sent by Gilbert and shorthand stenographer Charles Hale, who was there for the Boston Daily Advertiser, leading Johnson, Boritt and others to conclude that Lincoln added them extemporaneously.
Lincoln told his good friend, Kentuckian James Speed, that he continued to work on the speech after arriving in Gettysburg and had not had time to memorize it. He also acknowledged that he did not stick to the script in his hand.
Nicolay said Lincoln referred to the AP report when reconstructing and refining the address for the later drafts. But which one?
Due to "inevitable telegraphic variations," says Johnson, there were almost as many versions in circulation "as there were newspapers that printed them." No definitive "wire copy" survives in AP files, says company archivist Valerie Komor.
Many, including Komor, believe the story that appeared the next day in the New York Tribune, represents the dispatch sent out from AP headquarters. But Johnson notes that the Tribune had its own reporter in Gettysburg that day.
Through some forensic calisthenics, Johnson believes he has succeeded in recreating the original AP dispatch.
Different versions either include or omit the word "poor" in "far above our poor power to add or detract."
"Poor" is missing from the Tribune version, Boritt notes. It's included in the story published in the Philadelphia North American, which to Johnson "appears to be the closest approximation of the AP version as it was telegraphed from Gettysburg on the day of the speech."
Unfortunately, Gilbert's personal account only muddies the waters. In the wire dispatches, the text is interrupted six times to note applause. But in 1917, Gilbert remembered no "tumultuous outbursts of enthusiasm accompanying the President's utterances," adding the cemetery was "not the place for it."
Boritt, director emeritus of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, has concluded the recollection of the AP man, who died in 1924, "needs to be taken with a grain of salt."
In the end, does it really matter whether Lincoln said "the government" or just "government?" It certainly did to him.
"The exact words are important because they clearly reveal Lincoln's thinking about the importance of the Civil War and the world historical importance of the struggle that he was engaged in," says Johnson. "He was very clear about wanting to get the words correct, precise — because he knew that it was an important point."
Johnson says "it's very fortunate for us" that Gilbert was there.
"We'd probably always have the delivery text, but that might never have been published during Lincoln's lifetime," he says. "So the Gettysburg Address might never have become such an important, iconic text for us if the AP had not been there reporting it properly."
In a paper prepared for Northern Kentucky University's Six@Six lecture series, archivist Komor suggests that Gilbert's greatest contribution to our understanding of the speech is perhaps his recollection of how Lincoln delivered the final lines: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Many who recite the address place the emphasis on the prepositions "of," ''by" and "for." But Gilbert, no longer preoccupied with the mechanics of note-taking, was able to truly listen to what the president was saying, and how he said it — and he insisted Lincoln's focus was "the people."
"He served the people; he referred to them as his 'rightful masters,'" Komor writes. "On the morning of November 19, Lincoln beheld his masters lying dead by the thousands."
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