The Spoken Word in American History: The Gettysburg Address

By Don Allen

The study of history is, by definition, the study of the written word. As someone who is working towards becoming a historian, the spoken word has always been suspect. Spoken words can be changed, as in the famous school exercise that has you whisper a sentence in one persons ear, who then whispers it in the next persons ear, and so on down the line. By the end of the experiment the sentence, sometimes in a major way and sometimes by just a word or two, is almost always changed. The reliability of the spoken word is, quite frankly, unreliable.

American history, especially throughout the 19th century, is often defined by the spoken word in speeches given by famous politicians. But before the advent of audio and video recording these speeches were transcribed by well meaning, but human, reporters who could easily, and often did, make mistakes. This is by no means an insult to these reporters, as it is impossible to record a speech by hand 100% accurately. I invite you to try it someday. Listen to someone speak, at a normal rate of speech and preferably from a prepared text that you have no knowledge of, for two minutes and try to write down what they say. After, compare your transcript of what they said with what they have written down. How close are you? While the general meaning of the text may be clear, I’d wager the exact words are quite a bit different.

This can be seen in the case of one of the most famous speeches in American history: the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. The address as usually given is ten sentences long, not even amounting to 275 words, and took just over two minutes to give. Several quotes and phrases from his speech are legendary: ” ….government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”; “Four score and twenty years ago”; and the only patently wrong thing he said in the speech, that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”. The subtitle to Garry Wills Pulitzer Prize winning book could not be more accurate: Lincoln at GettysburgThe Words That Remade America (available at the 2AD memorial library here). But what many may not know is that, despite being reprinted a billion times since it was given, and despite even being literally carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., there is some doubt as to the exact words that he spoke on that day. There are at least five existing manuscripts of Lincoln’s text, slightly different from one another, and then there are contemporary news reports on what was said which, as described above, can be different from each other.

An entire discussion of the reasons for the dispute is outside the scope of this blog, but I encourage you to look into it. It is a fascinating bit of detective work to learn about the different manuscripts of the speech, how they differ from one another and from the contemporary newspaper reports of the day. Even if specific look doesn’t strike your fancy look into the speech itself, research its impact on American and even world history. A new book (available here) has just arrived at the 2nd Memorial that uses the text of the Gettysburg Address to “tell the whole story of America’s Civil War, 1776 to the present” in an engaging and innovative format, that of the graphic novel. Books on Lincoln in general will nearly always contain some mention of the speech, and there are plenty here at the 2nd Memorial to choose from.

I started this blog with a brief diatribe against the spoken word, which, as a future historian, I find unreliable. And while I do prefer to have the exact words, as words have power and I believe in knowing what was said, sometimes it is not necessary so long as the understanding is there. The Gettysburg Address is one of those times. We don’t know if Lincoln actually included the words “under God” in his speech, or removed the seventh “here” (see Wills, Appendix I). What matters is the spirit of what he said, and how that spirit endures. Martin Luther King echoed the Gettysburg Address in the opening of his tremendous “I Have A Dream” speech, while standing  on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the words “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”. Today, seven scores and thirteen  years removed from Lincoln’s address, it is still taught in American schools. The power of the man, and the power of the moment, remains etched in the American psyche. We do not have the exact words that Lincoln spoke that day, and probably never will. And I’m ok with that.

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Filed under American History, Books, Uncategorized

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