Happy Birthday, Gettysburg Address

Few people are aware that quite possibly the greatest speech in American political history was an afterthought.

The biggest attraction for the dedication of the newest federal cemetery in Pennsylvania on Nov. 19, 1863, was Edward Everett, a famous orator of the day. Shortly before the dedication someone thought to invite Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the barely United States, then convulsed in fratricide. He arrived a day early.

Contrary to popular myth, Lincoln did not jot down his remarks on an envelope. He had written a draft on Executive Mansion stationery in Washington, perhaps in the Lincoln Bedroom, where the original now resides. Lincoln fiddled with the last two paragraphs the night before in pencil. His final text is below.

The occasion was a solemn one that somnolent gray day. Just four months previously 82,269 Union troops under Gen. George Meade had confronted 75,000 Confederates under Gen. Robert E. Lee in a smokey, sordid three-day struggle that would claim 51,112 casualties — killed, wounded and missing.

That was to become the bloodiest battle of the Civil War; 53% of the casualties were Southerners and Lee’s forces never regained their strength.

Given the dearth of video games in those days, public speeches were a major entertainment. And with no loudspeakers or giant screens, you better have a big voice and the audience crowded close. With recordings still 35 years away, we can only imagine Lincoln’s practiced political voice.

As the main event, Everett orated for two solid hours.

Lincoln, as the afterthought, spoke for only a few minutes. The president was said to have not thought much of his remarks that are now inscribed in granite on his memorial in Washington and in the hearts and minds of millions. Since the president had written the speech himself, he needed no stage whispers or reminding Teleprompter, just an occasional glance at the handwritten notes in his hand.

American pols these days think nothing of ripping off 4,000-5,000 words on one transitory subject; President Obama did 59 of these townhall babies last year just on healthcare.

Hoping for a few seconds of TV news time, 21st century political speechwriters plot to plant maybe 15 sound-bite words near the beginning, given the short attention span of modernday media types. Today’s awed audiences believe the president is talking to them. But they are mere props, especially the select ones carefully arrayed behind him by representative age, gender, ethnicity and skin color.

The enduring strength of Lincoln’s approximately 200 words is empowered by the grandiloquent simplicity of its notion: that nothing those gathered there that day could say or do could conceivably equal what had already transpired on that earth by those now gone.

Lincoln gave two autographed copies of the speech to his secretaries. And later penned three more for charity auctions.

On that day of the Gettysburg Address seven score and seven years ago Lincoln had less than 17 months to live:

Four-score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

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. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

(Malcolm is the Top of the Ticket blogger at latimes.com/ticket  )