One of the fallen soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg (Photographed by Timothy O'Sullivan, Library of Congress)

The Courage of Lincoln's Convictions

On November 19, 2013

Today, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, it is difficult to conceive that the most often memorized political speech from our history was not immediately hailed as a masterful summary of American ideals. Yet, as Chris Pascarella blogged on November 15, a retraction published by the central Pennsylvania newspaper, The Patriot and Union, abashedly admits that their editors in 1863 called the oration “silly remarks.”

One of the fallen soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg (Photographed by Timothy O'Sullivan, Library of Congress)
One of the fallen soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg (Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan. Library of Congress)

A related feature story quotes Lincoln scholar Martin P. Johnson, who speculates that the silly remarks mentioned were those Lincoln made the night before, upon arrival in Gettysburg, in response to a serenade played below his hotel room. The editors may have deliberately conflated the two speeches, wanting to undermine Lincoln’s rhetorical achievement; they make clear in their commentary that what they most object to is Lincoln’s effort to express the high purpose of what they called a war fought “to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.” The Patriot and Union editors also held a grudge against Lincoln, having been arrested and charged with sedition the year before because of a handbill printed on their presses that the administration feared could spark a race riot. But they were not the only paper to criticize the speech; you can read here the editorial in a Democratic Chicago paper that denounces Lincoln for not honoring the Confederate dead equally with the Union soldiers slain in the battle. These contemporary reactions, so odd to the eyes of readers 150 years later, remind us that in his determination to push through emancipation, Lincoln fought against widespread criticism and fear of the new social order that freeing the slaves would bring about.

A question for etymologists out there: the Chicago Times editorial uses the word “Dawdleism” to describe Lincoln’s funeral oratory. Does anyone know what the word meant at the time? Since Lincoln certainly didn’t lag in stating his point, we wondered if this was a reference to the months that elapsed between the battle and the cemetery dedication? Or is “Dawdle” a character in 19th century literature who emphasized partisan goals when speaking on solemn occasions—as the editorial accuses Lincoln of doing? We can’t find the name in character lists for Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, or Sir Walter Scott. If you have a clue, let us know!


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