Dateline Gettysburg, 1863: Press Reports Echo 2019 Partisanship
On this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered a brief, sublimely crafted, 272-word oration that historian Garry Wills called nothing less than the words “that remade America.”
“Men died that the nation might live,” Civil War scholar James McPherson has said of the fighting at Gettysburg. After that summer battle -- and after their sacrifice was consecrated by Lincoln’s soaring words -- the old, slaveholding nation began to die, McPherson added.
Americans noticed. “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln,” noted the Chicago Tribune, “will live among the annals of man.” Horace Greeley said it was doubtful “that our national literature contains a finer gem that that little speech at the Gettysburg celebration.”
Lincoln’s words had staying power, too. For much of the next century, the speech was memorized by millions of American schoolchildren in history classes or on debate teams.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association quoted from the Gettysburg Address in its 1912 resolution demanding the vote. Martin Luther King paid homage to it in his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial.
Barack Obama, another president from Illinois, speaking 150 years after Gettysburg, said that “Lincoln’s words give us confidence that whatever trial awaits us, this nation and the freedom we cherish can, and shall, prevail.”
Yet, the Gettysburg Address had its detractors, too, and not all of them in the South. The most conspicuous dissenters were in the media. As I’ll explain in a moment, this little-remembered historical fact has relevance to our time.
* * *
Here is how a leading newspaper in Abraham Lincoln’s adopted home state covered the Gettysburg Address. “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame,” editorialized the Chicago Times, “as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
The “intelligent foreigners” on the editorial board of the Times of London picked up their cue. “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln,” it wrote.
The most infamous, not to mention fatuous, review of the Gettysburg Address appeared in the local Harrisburg Newspaper. “We pass over the silly remarks of the President,” it editorialized. “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.”
Over the years, much merriment has been had by ridiculing such misbegotten verdicts. Six years ago, the Harrisburg paper made fun of itself in a “retraction” of its ancient editorial. “Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”
Postulating that the editors in 1863 had been “under the influence of partisanship or of strong drink,” the modern editors attracted national attention with a tongue-in-cheek kicker in the language of newspaper corrections: “The Patriot-News regrets the error.”
It was all in good fun, and it’s never too late to set the record straight. But in their use of a single word, “partisan,” the editors of 2013 hinted at the problem in 1863. It’s one that has hardly disappeared in the 21st century. At the time, the Harrisburg newspaper was named the Daily Patriot and Union. Its editor, Oramel Barrett, wasn’t known as a drinker. He was known as a proponent of the radical wing of the Democratic Party. The radical Democrats despised Lincoln and had come to oppose the Civil War.
In 2013, writer Doug Stewart -- Oramel Barrett’s great-great-grandson -- explained the political dynamics with special clarity in a Smithsonian magazine essay.
“Oddly enough, Oramel’s put-down of the Gettysburg Address -- though a minority view in the Union at the time -- didn’t stand out as especially outrageous at the time,” he wrote. “Reaction to the speech was either worshipful or scornful, depending on one’s party affiliation. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln, while the Democrats were the more or less loyal opposition (though their loyalty was often questioned).”
That factor, and not divergent literary sensibilities, explains the panning of the Gettysburg Address. The Times of London? It represented a faction in England that was toying with the idea of helping the Confederacy. (As Tip O’Neill might have said, “All politics is…politics.”) It would be a form of secular sacrilege to compare Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump, so I won’t do it. I will observe, however, that newspapers motivated by partisan or parochial concerns often find that their judgments about U.S. presidents or current events do not stand the tests of time.
In Lincoln’s presidency, the stakes were exceedingly high. Not just for the brave men, living and dead, who struggled at Gettysburg and in four dozen other major battles in the Civil War, but for the 4 million enslaved Americans whose fate rested on the war’s outcome.
Oramel Barrett and the other critics of the Gettysburg Address didn’t miss its meaning. They understood it all too well, and it enraged them. They wanted an end to the frightful fighting and they believed that negotiating with the South was preferable to the continued carnage on the fields of Virginia, Maryland, and now Pennsylvania. Moreover, they understood what Lincoln was doing rhetorically, just as Garry Wills, Martin Luther King, and the suffragists of New York did. “Four score and seven years ago” was, even in 1863, an archaic formulation. But if one did the math, Lincoln had placed America’s founding in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, not 1787 the year the Constitution was written.
The Declaration had stated flatly that “all men are created equal.” The Constitution codified slavery. At Gettysburg, Lincoln declared by fiat, in six innocuous-sounding words, which of those two documents must henceforth encompass the American spirit. Moreover, when he asserted that the slain Union soldiers had given their “last full measure of devotion” to that ideal, Lincoln was saying that they had died to free the slaves -- a claim understood by Lincoln’s friends and his foes.
The Gettysburg speech’s “misstatement of the cause for which they died,” fumed The Chicago Times, a Democratic paper, “was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.”
It was willful indeed, and we shall give the last word this morning to a Lincoln ally, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, who said this after Lincoln’s death:
“That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg … and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said, ‘The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are always more [important] than battles.”