Among the many rich rhetorical legacies US presidents have left to future generations, the Gettysburg Address dwarfs them all. Lincoln took scarcely more than two minutes to deliver a worthy tribute to fallen Federal soldiers and paint an inspirational vision for the future of a country rent and scarred by nearly three years of unimaginable violence and horror. Lincoln’s words, perhaps the most heralded in the English language, remain a near perfect example of eulogy and reassurance during the most troubling time in our history. Dedication Day, celebrated this year in the wake of a withering pandemic alongside one of the most divisive and ugly presidential campaigns in our history, reminds us that despite our differences, strong leadership and dignity from our chief executive can help pull us through any crisis, salve our psychological wounds, and ultimately renew the nation.
Lincoln’s iconic speech of November 19, 1863 has been studied, dissected, and analyzed by hundreds of eminent historians. Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Willis’s Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America and Martin P. Johnson’s Writing the Gettysburg Address are outstanding references that help us understand this important historical moment; yet one important aspect of the speech and the events of that day remains less appreciated. The Gettysburg dedication was not only about honoring the Union dead. This was the most important political event for the Lincoln administration since the election of 1860 and served as the catalyst for the president’s reelection campaign.
Lincoln was not only one of American history’s greatest presidents, he was also one of its most talented and skilled politicians. Like the famous Prussian military strategist Clausewitz, the president understood that war and politics were inseparable. Lincoln’s invitation to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” reached him just 17 days before the National Cemetery dedication. Despite never having left wartime Washington for the sole purpose of participating in a public event, Lincoln made his attendance an important priority. The solemn ceremony at Gettysburg was the featured part of a carefully planned, daylong series of events that fused memorializing with partisan politics.
The events of November 19, 1863 were conceived and executed by David Wills, in concert with the governors of several loyal states, most notably Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. Lincoln’s two-minute cameo appearance was sandwiched in between the two keynote speakers of the day. Edward Everett, the most accomplished American orator of his time, delivered the formal dedication speech on the platform near the cemetery; a two-hour dissertation on the history of the battle and a moving homage to the dead heroes, replete with Greek funeral imagery and pleadings of patriotism that brought many in the audience to tears. The second featured speaker, Ohio lieutenant governor elect Charles Anderson, moved his audience to frenzied applause and cheering in an overtly political oration attended by Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and nearly all of the important dignitaries. His message was simple and provocative: The dead have been justly honored. Now the country needs to revenge their deaths, rally behind Lincoln to defeat the traitors, and restore the sacred Union of their forebears.
The timing of the Gettysburg dedication was critical from a political perspective. After suffering huge losses to Democrats in the mid-term elections of 1862, public support in the North for the war effort was waning with many citizens supporting proposals from so-called Peace Democrats for an armistice. Erstwhile Republicans formed coalitions with War Democrats and reformed under the Union Party banner to stem dissent and promote Lincoln’s war agenda. This strategy worked and the state elections in the fall of 1863 resulted in Union party triumphs, thus setting the stage for the upcoming presidential election. The ceremony at Gettysburg presented an ideal opportunity for Union Party operatives to leverage this high-profile event with as much dignity and grace as possible; however, decorum is not always a core competency among ambitious politicians.
Opposition newspapers chastised the president and his political allies for turning a solemn and somber event into what Ohio’s Democratic Crisis newspaper called, “an insensate carnival.” There was indeed plenty of drinking, serenading, and merry-making going on in Gettysburg the night before the dedication. Secretary of State Seward, a prewar abolitionist, delivered a short speech that evening that was radical by any measure. The Philadelphia Age cried that “the country should blush with shame. These men meet to laugh and joke and electioneer with the wounded still groaning and the dead unburied.” Lincoln avoided the frolic and spent much of his time in his room, refining his brief address.
Understanding Lincoln’s remarks requires us to step back from 150 years of myth-making, martyrdom, and memory to focus on the broader context of this important moment. Lincoln was convinced that the Union would not survive his reelection defeat. He devised a concise masterpiece that combined patriotic tribute with an inspirational vision for the future while simultaneously establishing a political agenda for the upcoming election. A radical “new birth of freedom” for enslaved peoples in the form of an anti-slavery amendment would be a centerpiece of his reelection platform. Lincoln used Everett’s oration, which was conciliatory toward the Southern people to promote his vision of reunion with reconciliation. He used Anderson’s angry, vengeful speech to ensure that “the great task remaining,” winning the war, would be prosecuted to decisive victory, thus allowing Lincoln to avoid harsh rhetoric and seemingly rise above partisanship in his own brief address as chief executive.
The employment of these three different speeches as a rhetorical ensemble to help Lincoln accomplish his political agenda has been overlooked by many scholars. Everett’s classic eulogy has been all but forgotten; overshadowed by Lincoln’s immortal words. Anderson’s speech manuscript was literally lost until fairly recently, only to be rediscovered and finally published in full for the first time a few years ago in my book, The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War Odyssey. The fact that Lincoln’s famous words were book ended by two political opponents (Everett ran for vice president against Lincoln in 1860 and Anderson never supported the president politically) made this event even more extraordinary. Although Lincoln himself had no role in the planning of the day’s events or in the choice of the featured speakers, he seized this opportunity with the skill of a master politician.
Preble County, Ohio district attorney Robert Miller reacted to Lincoln’s address just eleven days after he witnessed it with an argument in favor of Lincoln’s reelection. Miller was convinced that the president’s speech “will confirm all loyal men and women in the belief that Abraham Lincoln, though he may have made mistakes, is the right man in the right place.” Another witness to the speech, Virginia diarist Joanne Roedel, reinforced the partisan political nature of the celebrations preceding the dedication. “The very mention of his name brings forth shouts of applause,” she gushed. “No doubt he will be the next President, even his enemies acknowledge him to be an honest man.” The Democratic New York World panned the festive atmosphere as being “in bad taste and out of place.”
Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln was alert to the fact that every public appearance and military decision he made had political consequences. To a Northern population grown weary of strife and sacrifice, challenges to his leadership and war agenda meant that calls for an armistice could conceivably result in the permanent dismantling of the Union and/or the perpetuation of slavery. This he could not abide. Lincoln’s belief that the fate of the Union depended on his reelection meant that he needed to accomplish three important tasks at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863: Honor the sacrifice of the Union dead, link their struggle to his vision for a renewed nation, and rally the country behind his war agenda. The dedication events set the table for Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign, as the banner headline in the Wabash Express had trumpeted the previous day: MR. LINCOLN FOR THE NEXT PRESIDENT.
Martin P. Johnson, Writing the Gettysburg Address (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013).
Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
David T. Dixon, The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War Odyssey (Santa Barbara: B-List History, 2015).