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The Gettysburg Oration

Delivered by Edward Everett.

The Forgotten Gettysburg Addresser



One-hundred-and-fifty years later, you've still got to feel a little bad for him: The poor guy who wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address, and who then saw himself and his speech fade anonymously into the mists of history. No, not that Gettysburg Address. The other one. The one that was supposed to be the main event that day.


The man's name was Edward Everett, and his story serves as a melancholy lesson for any of us who become cocksure that we're about to cross the finish line as the winner in something: our work, our play, any of the things at which we hope to succeed and prevail.


The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is July 1, 2013; sesquicentennial commemorations in that Pennsylvania town have been going on for much of the year and will culminate in the fall with ceremonies memorializing Abraham Lincoln's magnificent speech on Nov. 19, 1863. Everett will be an afterthought at best. He was quite an accomplished fellow. He had been president of Harvard University, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. senator, governor of Massachusetts, U.S. secretary of state, minister to Great Britain. He was also, by all accounts, a terrific speechmaker.


So when, in 1863, the national cemetery in Gettysburg was being dedicated, Edward Everett was a natural choice to be the day's billboarded speaker. It wasn't clear that President Lincoln would even be in attendance. When Lincoln did agree to come to Gettysburg, his role was defined as making "dedicatory remarks." The day's "oration"—that's how it was described—was reserved for Everett.He nailed it. He had prepared meticulously. He had researched and recreated in lovely yet searing language the facts and meanings of the Battle of Gettysburg. He spoke for two hours, and used all of his considerable skills to mesmerize the audience. He would have been justly confident in believing that the first words of his address would go down in history:


"Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. . . ."


Great stuff. And, a couple of rousing hours later, here was his windup: "But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we 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." As Everett returned to his seat, he might well have assumed that he had just delivered a speech for the ages. By my count of his text, he had spoken 13,508 words.


Then, after some music, Lincoln stood up. A two-to-three-minute speech. Fewer than 280 words.It's not difficult to understand why some people (falsely) assumed that Lincoln might have jotted the speech on the back of an envelope on the train from Washington to Gettysburg. He was finished almost before he began.


"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." And, not much more than a blink of an eye later:

". . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."


All of Everett's preparation, all of his dramatic elocution, all of his talent and intellect and exhaustive research . . . destined to be forgotten. He received a consolation prize: Lincoln gave him one of the five copies of what, forevermore, would be known as the Gettysburg Address.


To historians—at least those who elect to notice Everett—his own speech is routinely referred to as the Gettysburg Oration.

Whatever his private thoughts might have been as he listened to Lincoln's brief remarks (a fleeting "Is that all you got?" would have been understandable), Everett was gracious in the aftermath. The next day, he wrote to Lincoln, expressing admiration for the "eloquent simplicity & appropriateness" of the president's speech: "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."


Lincoln was magnanimous (he could afford to be). He wrote back to Everett: "I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure."


One line in Lincoln's speech did turn out to be half-right: "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. . . ." Not true for Lincoln's words; true enough for Everett's. We would all do well to keep in mind: Sometimes, regardless of how diligently you prepare, of how splendidly you do your job, of how thoroughly you consider every aspect of the task, you get blindsided by fate. It would be convenient to be able to neatly conclude this tale by reporting that, the fame of the Gettysburg Address notwithstanding, two years later Lincoln went to Ford's Theatre and saw his days on Earth come to an untimely end, while Everett, though his speech was consigned to obscurity, went on to live a full and happy life.


But in fact, in January 1865 Everett came down with a bad cold while making another speech, this one in Boston, and died soon after. Lincoln outlived him by three months. Sometimes, a guy just can't catch a break.


Mr. Greene, a columnist and commentator for CNN, is the author, most recently, of "Late Edition: A Love Story" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010).


June 22, 2013


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