We know that Abraham Lincoln delivered an elegant two-minute address in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on Thursday, November 19, 1863.
The problem is we don't know which text he used.
There are five versions of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's own handwriting. All are similar, but none identical. The very last one provides the text that children memorize, the words which appear on the Lincoln Memorial.
But that text wasn't created until about March 11, 1864. To know more about Lincoln's actual reading text, we need to find out when he began writing. That story probably begins on Tuesday evening, July 7, 1863.
On July 7, 1863, President Lincoln told a crowd gathered outside the White House that recent Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had provided the “occasion for a speech” on a “glorious theme,” but noted that he wasn't quite ready to deliver one.
Instead, the president wondered aloud, “How long ago is it?—eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ”all men are created equal."
“How long ago is it? Eighty odd years...”
July 7, 1863
“Four score and seven years ago...”
Nov. 19, 1863
We might call that moment the “first draft” of the Gettysburg Address.
It definitely illustrates for students of any age the value of revising and rehearsing their work.
Noted Lincoln historian Douglas L. Wilson has described Abraham Lincoln as “a confirmed pre-writer.”
That means Lincoln regularly jotted down notes and kept fragments which he expected to refine and use later in his speeches and public writings.
He was almost certainly doing this during the months leading up to the delivery of the Gettysburg Address.
On July 7th, Lincoln explained how difficult it was for him to properly recognize individual heroes. In his remarks, he refused to identify any of the soldiers from Gettysburg, saying, “I dislike to mention the name of one single officer lest I might do wrong to those I might forget.”
But it appears Lincoln already had one very powerful story weighing heavily on his mind.
Bayard Wilkeson was a nineteen-year-old Union officer who was mortally wounded on the battle's first day. The young man died as a prisoner of war after desperately amputating his own leg. Bayard's father Samuel Wilkeson was a leading war correspondent for the New York Times, who was travelling with the Army of the Potomac and actually found his son's dead body on July 4, 1863. Samuel Wilkeson then wrote what was perhaps the single most dramatic newspaper dispatch of the conflict.
Near the end of his widely read account, Wilkeson also offered a moving plea for why his young son had not died in vain.
The famous reporter claimed that the dead at Gettysburg had “baptised” with their blood, “the second birth of Freedom in America.”
These words might very well have inspired Lincoln. He had an opportunity to read them before his July 7th remarks and certainly echoed them later.
“the second birth of Freedom in America”
July 6, 1863
“a new birth of freedom”
November 19, 1863
Without doubt, Abraham Lincoln spent the summer and autumn of 1863 reflecting with great care on the enormous sacrifices of families like the Wilkesons.
Then in early November 1863, President Lincoln received an invitation to come to Gettysburg, where northern governors hoped he might deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the new soldiers' cemetery.
Sometime in November 1863, Lincoln produced two drafts of his Address that have survived and now reside in the collections of the Library of Congress.
These manuscripts have been named after his top aides, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, who preserved them for the historical record.
However, historians still don't know for sure which of these manuscripts was Lincoln's actual reading text.
Lincoln wrote the “Nicolay Draft” or “Nicolay Copy” of the Gettysburg Address on two different types of paper, a first page on Executive Mansion stationery and produced in ink, and a second page, written in pencil, on lined paper. The document was also carefully folded.
This last detail is important because several eye-witnesses claimed afterwards that the president had pulled a folded speech out of his coat pocket on Tuesday afternoon.
The “Hay Draft” or “Hay Copy” more closely matches newspaper accounts of the Gettysburg Address than the Nicolay Draft. It is also the version that contains the greatest number of corrections made by Lincoln himself. Historian Gabor Boritt argues in his book, “The Gettysburg Gospel” that it was most likely the text Lincoln used for delivery.
Yet the Hay Draft was written in pen on large lined paper, with only a single fold, not likely for a reading text. Many historians believe Lincoln prepared it after he had returned to Washington.
The variations between these texts are relatively minor, but what really separates these earlier versions of the Gettysburg Address from later copies made in Lincoln's handwriting is that the phrase “under God” is missing from the final sentence.
The first version of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to contain the phrase “under God” was the manuscript that he prepared for former US Senator Edward Everett in February 1864.
Everett had been the main orator at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Organizers of the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, which was a pro-Union relief organization in New York, planned to sell lithographed copies of a volume that bound together Lincoln's two-minute address with Everett's two-hour oration. Lincoln wrote Everett on February 4, 1864 announcing that he was sending along a manuscript for that purpose. The so-called “Everett Copy” now resides in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL.
Organizers of another Sanitary Fair in Baltimore, Maryland also approached President Lincoln in early 1864 about obtaining a facsimile of his already widely admired Gettysburg Address, once again, to help raise funds for the Union war effort.
Prominent Democratic politician and popular American historian George Bancroft made the formal request to President Lincoln when he met him at a White House reception in February.
Historian George Bancroft describing his memorable “encounter” with Abraham Lincoln, excerpted from a letter to his wife, February 24, 1864:
“Last night I went to the President's reception. He took me by the one of his hands, and trying to recall my name, he waved the other a foot and a half above his head, and cried out, greatly to the amusement of the by-standers: “Hold on-I know you; you are-History, History of the United States-Mr.-Mr. Bancroft, Mr. George Bancroft,” and seemed disposed to give me a hearty welcome-expressing a wish to see me some day apart from the crowd. Sandy wanted Abe's autograph in a copy of his Gettysburg speech; finding him so good-natured, I asked for it; and he very readily promised it.”
“Sandy” was Bancroft's stepson, Col. Alexander Bliss, an officer in the Union army and one of the main organizers of the Baltimore Sanitary Fair. The Bancroft Copy is now held by Cornell University.
But what Lincoln sent wasn't good enough. The organizers had wanted a version formatted with big margins, a formal heading, and “Abe's autograph” as Bancroft had put it.
So Lincoln went to work yet again, making a last few minor adjustments. Alexander “Sandy” Bliss finally received this new manuscript on March 11, 1864. The “Bliss Copy” has since become the standard text for the Gettysburg Address. This is also the copy which hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom at The White House.
The story behind the making of the Gettysburg Address(es) offers at least one key insight about Abraham Lincoln.
He never stopped working.
“It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced.”
--Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 19, 1863
Our “unfinished work” should be to study Lincoln's words anew. We must find fresh meaning in them for our own day.
Phrases like “a new birth of freedom” can lose their power over time, unless we not only remember them, but also rededicate ourselves to their purpose.
Reciting the Gettysburg Address is always a good thing to do.
But truly studying Lincoln's words and living up to his ideals is the most important contribution any of us can make to the universal causes of liberty, equality, and democracy.
To learn more, please visit the website built by participants in the online “Understanding Lincoln” course and launched in honor of the 150th anniversary for the Gettysburg Address: Lincoln's Writings: The Multi-Media Edition
Print Sources Consulted:
--Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006)
--Douglas L. Wilson, et. al., Long Remembered: Lincoln and His Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2011)
See also an important new book from Martin P. Johnson, Writing the Gettysburg Address (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2013)
Writer and Producer — Matthew Pinsker, Director, House Divided Project and Pohanka Chair for Civil War History at Dickinson College
Technical Support — Ryan Burke and John Osborne
Helpful Googlers — Amrit Dhir and Piotr Adamczyk
Additional Contributors — Dickinson students Russ Allen, Colin MacFarlane, Leah Miller and Will Nelligan; Lance Warren, Gilder Lehrman Institute; Sarah Turpin, Clemson Elementary School; Martha Bohnenberger, Sterling School; Watkins Elementary School and Ford's Theatre Society; Elizabeth Weingarten, New America Foundation; Susan Bonser and Tina Grim, Gettysburg Foundation