An alternate version of Lincoln’s words


Everybody knows the Gettysburg Address, or at least the version of it that appears in every history book you’ll ever see, and on the wall inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C, and in other public places as well. But I recently came upon a slightly different version of it, and I wanted to share it here.

First, some back story. Last summer I read Lincoln’s Sword, a fascinating book by historian Douglas L. Wilson. In the book, Wilson examines Lincoln’s writings and speeches as a way of explaining Lincoln’s mastery of the language, and the way he used it to shape public opinion about the war. In fact, Wilson claims that our modern understanding of the Civil War comes from what Lincoln said or wrote about it.

But there were limitations to this in the 19th century. The technology to record his words didn’t exist yet, and so any written version of a speech which Lincoln gave depends on the memory of the person who wrote the speech down. Sometimes that person gets it right, and sometimes they don’t. And there’s really no way of knowing which is which.

The first–and perhaps most jarring–example Wilson gave in his book was Lincoln’s Farewell Address in Springfield Illinois upon leaving for Washington in early 1861. Lincoln spoke off the cuff to the people who had come to see him off that morning, and it wasn’t until after the train had left that someone asked Lincoln to write down what he had said. There are several instances of where Lincoln’s words, as written, differed from what reporters and witnesses at the scene claim that he said. Lincoln wrote down what he either believed he said, or wishes he might have said, but even his written words are not necessarily the words that came out of his mouth on that occasion.

With this potential–or even a likelihood–for discrepancies between the spoken and written versions of a speech, I came across a version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that was printed in the Chicago Tribune on November 21, 1863. The version is what a Tribune reporter–who presumably was present in Gettysburg on the occasion of Lincoln’s speech–told the world that Lincoln said. None of the differences changes the meaning of the words, necessarily, but it does leave open the possibility that what Lincoln’s handwritten version of the speech said differed from the words that he spoke on the stage.

Here’s what the Tribune reported that Lincoln said:

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers established upon this continent a Government subscribed in Liberty and dedicated to the fundamental principle that all mankind are created equal by a good God, and [applause] and now we are engaged in a great contest. We are contesting the question whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, so dedicated can longer remain. We are met on a great battle field of the war. We are met here to dedicate a portion of that field as the final resting place of those who have given their lives to that nation that it might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a large sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men lying dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or to detract [Great applause] The world will little heed, nor long remember, what we say here; but it will not forget what they did here [Immense Applause].

It is for us rather, the living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried forward. It is rather for us here to be dedicated the great task remaining before us; for us to renew our dedication to that cause for which they gave the full measure of their devotion. Here let us resolve that what they have done shall not have been done in vain.That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth. That the Government this people founded, by the people, shall not perish.”

This version leaves out a few of the more memorable turns of a phrase that I am used to seeing in the Gettysburg Address: For example, the phrase “The last full measure of devotion” is missing, as is “conceived in liberty” from the first sentence, and “a new birth of freedom” from the penultimate sentence appears to have been clipped in the Tribune’s version of the speech. And the last sentence, with its rhythmic “of the people, by the people, for the people” construction, was not reported by the Tribune in that way at all.

Does this mean that the idealized version of the speech, which the Union soldiers recited back to Lincoln at the beginning of the recent Spielberg movie, is inaccurate? Not necessarily. It’s entirely possible that the Tribune‘s version of the speech was not completely accurate. Again, the person who wrote this down had no way of recording Lincoln’s words for additional reference. This version is what they though they heard, and it’s possible that other newspapers printed other versions of the speech as well. But it does raise the question of whether Lincoln’s words from the stage at Gettysburg are the same ones that we are familiar with today.

Again, in the absence of a recorded version of the speech, we’re hoping that what has been written down by Lincoln is accurate. For as honest as Lincoln certainly was, we all have problems remembering exactly what we said, sometimes. The broad strokes of Lincoln’s message have undoubtedly survived intact, but there’s also a possibility–perhaps even a probability–that some of his rhetorical flourishes may have been added after the speech. Either way, it’s always going to be the most important speech in American history. And I’ve just written almost a thousand words to prove that point.

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