Op-Ed: Newspaper prints apology for its 1863 editorial calling Gettysburg Address 'silly'

Posted Nov 19, 2013 by John David Powell
Seven score and ten years ago, President Abraham Lincoln brought forth on the battlefield of Gettysburg a new speech containing just 273 words, written in his own hand, and finished just before he arrived from Washington.
The country was engaged in the great Civil War, and the president was on hand to help dedicate the Soldier’s National Cemetery on the spot where so many struggled and died to consecrate what we now know as hallowed ground.
Lincoln was the second speaker of the day and may have been in the early stages of smallpox when he delivered the lines we learned in school about this nation under God, and of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Unlike today, when even the slightest utterance of a president becomes that hour’s breaking news, sometimes carried live by the insatiable beasts of cable, Lincoln did not have top billing at the dedication. That honor went to Edward Everett, arguably one of the leading political figures of the day: congressman, senator, Massachusetts governor, secretary of state (appointed to succeed Daniel Webster), ambassador to Great Britain, president of Harvard, ordained minister, unsuccessful candidate for vice president, and a weekly columnist.
People of the time also knew Everett for his powers of oratory, in other words, his strong and lengthy speeches. Well, his lengthy speeches, at least. Everett’s Gettysburg address is online. One site carries the warning that the printed version is more than 50 pages.
Reading, or attempting to read, Everett’s remarks reveals one great difference regarding the expectations of those days and now. A century-and-a-half ago, people appreciated a well-turned phrase, even if the turn was a little longer and wider than required.
“Standing beneath this serene sky,” Everett began, “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.”
Today, people tweeting in the crowd would have to break that opening sentence into three parts. More likely they would simply tweet: EE talking about skies fields trees & graves. Mentions god & nature & thats just the 1st sentence #longdaayahead
Lincoln also appreciated a good turn of a phrase and was no stranger to a backhanded compliment. In his note to Everett, Lincoln pointed out that everyone expected a long speech from Everett, just as they expected brevity from the president. He called Everett’s speech “eminently satisfactory” and “of great value.”
Lincoln’s note was a response to one Everett sent after the event. Everett’s letter was longer than Lincoln’s, naturally, and it expressed his “great admiration” of Lincoln’s words and of their “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness.”
“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,” he wrote.
But apparently history was kinder to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address , than the snarky anti-Lincoln editors of the Harrisburg Patriot-News who called Lincoln’s remarks “silly”, and hoped that the veil of oblivion would settle over them so no one would ever remember them.
The editors seemed to have more than literary critique in mind, though. The current editors have pointed out that back then, the newspaper was rabidly anti-Lincoln, and that Lincoln did not think highly of the paper. In fact, federal troops arrested the owner and three of his top assistants the previous year on suspicion of sedition.
The current editors have now printed a retraction , a century-and-a-half late. And, it’s safe to assume Messrs Lincoln and Everett really don’t care at this point.
But for those who like to look at a story in its context, the editors end up being somewhat prescient in their warnings from 150 years ago when placed into the political wars of today.
“Let our rulers harken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear a solemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, and to save the country from the misery and desolation which, under their present policy, is inevitable.”
Let’s hope the current editors did not find this part of the editorial regrettable.