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Gettysburg revisited [Editorial]

Last week, the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News' editorial board did something we editorial writers are loath to do: admit a monumental error in judgment. With tomorrow's 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address fast approaching, the current editorialists at what was, in 1863, the Patriot & Union, felt it incumbent upon themselves to officially apologize for their predecessors' dismissal of the most celebrated presidential remarks in our nation's history as "silly." "For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of."

"In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln's speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance," the current crop of journalists wrote last week. "The Patriot-News regrets the error."

Most readers evidently found this amusing (it was spoofed on Saturday Night Live this week). I read the news with a pang of dread. Let's just say that "silly" might be the nicest thing any of my predecessors on The Sun's editorial board thought about Lincoln during the Civil War. It was, as I noted in an essay for Sun Magazine during the paper's 175th anniversary, perhaps the most shameful chapter in The Sun's editorial history. What on earth might The Sun have had to say about the president's remarks upon the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg?

Much to my relief, The Sun didn't editorialize about it in November of 1863, which was in keeping with the paper's general policy against writing any editorials about the Civil War at all. (Given the presence of Union troops in town, the editors evidently decided that keeping their opinions to themselves was the best policy.)

But the paper did carry a news report about the dedication of the ceremony in its Nov. 20, 1863, edition, and it included lavish praise of the featured speaker, noting his "elaborate and ornate presentation, embellished by classical allusions, brilliant rhetorical passages and historical parallels illustrative of the existing conflict in the United States." The featured speaker was, of course, Edward Everett, the Massachusetts politician and orator who opined on the occasion for some two hours. After a lengthy recounting of his speech, The Sun noted, "... the dedicatory ceremony was appropriately performed by President Lincoln."

(Everett himself evidently had a better sense of whose address was the more brilliant, having written to Lincoln after the fact: "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.")

On Nov. 21, though, The Sun carried a "Letter from Gettysburg" in which the paper reproduced Lincoln's address in its entirety. It offered no commentary about the remarks, other than to add in brackets after the text the notation "Long continued applause." In what looks, 150 years on, like a peevish bit of passive-aggression, The Sun's unnamed correspondent added toward the end of the article, "President Lincoln and party left Gettysburg for Washington late in the evening, in a special train. No trains were permitted to leave town until after the president's departure, and thousands of citizens were unable to leave for their homes until the next morning."

The Gettysburg Address is now so famous that we have a hard time understanding how anyone there to hear it could not immediately have recognized it as worthy of carving into marble on the National Mall. But reading the contemporaneous accounts of the day gives a sense of just how easily a small speech, quiet in its rhetoric and naked in its sincerity, could get lost amid hours of prayers, oratory and processions, among all the choirs and bands and the 15,000 people reportedly in attendance, including a squadron of cavalry, two batteries of artillery and a regiment of infantry.

But the reason Lincoln's words have survived these 150 years, and will survive many hundreds more, is that they strip away all that is extraneous to expose the one ennobling truth of the horrible carnage that took place outside a small town in rural Pennsylvania: "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."

—Andrew A. Green

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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