The Man Who Wowed Them at Gettysburg

The famous American politician who gave the speech at Gettysburg in 1863 that cast a spell over the audience and earned glowing praise from all observers was born this week (April 11) in 1794.  Which may have you thinking to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute, wasn’t Abe Lincoln born in February?”

Indeed he was, but Lincoln was not the featured speaker at Gettysburg, nor was his speech considered a critical triumph or even a crowd pleaser.  That honor and accomplishment was Edward Everett’s, the man with the April 11th birthday.

A renowned scholar, diplomat and politician who had been president of Harvard University and had served as a congressman, senator, governor, and secretary of state, Everett was perhaps most famous of all for his oratorical skills. This made him the natural candidate to give the keynote speech at the ceremony honoring the Gettysburg battlefield and the soldiers from both the North and South who had fought and died there.

What’s more, a keynote speech in the 1860s was expected to be entertaining as well as informative; it was supposed to tell a story much as a good book or a feature film would today — and at about the same length. Two hour speeches were the norm back then, giving Everett, who was both a famous scholar and an excellent researcher, sufficient time to describe in intricate detail the three-day battle at Gettysburg, while weaving it into a larger historical theme that reached back as far as the Periclean Age in ancient Greece.  And he spoke entirely from memory in a voice so powerful and melodious that the audience was literally spellbound for the entire two hours.  Everett then sat down to enthusiastic applause, and in the next day’s newspapers the praise was universal.  The Boston Journal called it “brilliant” and “the best history of the campaign which this generation will have the privilege of reading.”

By contrast, Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech — only 272 words long and given in his high-pitched voice — received polite applause and then everyone went home. The next day most papers made buried mention of it inside their editions.

Seven score and nine years later, of course, we all know which speech has stood the test of time.  The Gettysburg Address is considered among the greatest in all of history and has helped make its author a legend.

And, ironically, the one person at Gettysburg who sensed that this might one day be the case was Everett himself.  In a note to Lincoln the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”