By Richard R. Shaw
Special to The Weekly
By now you’ve probably read that the Gettysburg Address turned 150 on Nov. 19, 1863. Among the articles extolling its oratorical brilliance was a headline concerning a Harrisburg, Pa., newspaper’s apology for panning Abraham Lincoln’s 272-word tribute to the soldiers who fought in the Civil War’s bloodiest battle earlier in 1863.
“The Patriot-News … retracted a dismissive editorial penned by its … predecessor, The Harrisburg Patriot & Union,” reported The Associated Press. “The retraction … said the [Democratic] newspaper’s November 1863 coverage was wrong when it described the speech as ‘silly remarks’ that deserved a ‘veil of oblivion.’”
That story got me wondering how Bangor’s home-town paper, the Whig & Courier, covered Lincoln’s remarks, delivered to a crowd of 15,000 at the dedication of a national cemetery. The Republican newspaper was one of New England’s most respected; one devoted reader was Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, who had moved from Hampden to Bangor earlier that year. The paper’s words carried weight.
What I found was, well, practically nothing. Scarcely a mention was made of what came to be known as the Gettysburg Address, but the paper gave lots of ink to a 13,607-word speech delivered by Massachusetts orator Edward Everett. It was clear that Everett was the featured speaker and Lincoln a supporting act.
“Hon. Edward Everett, the most splendid scholar of the nation, pronounced the eulogy of the honored dead. …,” the paper stated.
The Whig & Courier went on to print Everett’s opening remarks while ignoring Lincoln’s iconic words, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what [the brave men] did here.”
By contrast, The New York Times reprinted Lincoln’s words verbatim in its Nov. 20 edition. It even ran a list of all dignitaries attending the dedication, including Vice President Hamlin, although at least two Hamlin biographies fail to note his presence.
The Whig & Courier printed a few words about Lincoln’s party arriving in Gettysburg by train. The president “… said he was happy to see so many of his friends present to participate in the ceremonies, but he would make no speech, as he had nothing particular to say (laughter and applause).”
Not until the Gettysburg Address’ centennial in 1963 did the Bangor Daily News, which acquired the Whig & Courier in 1900, rectify the oversight. Under the headline, “The speech that nobody heard,” the paper ran the text of the address, a picture of Lincoln, a sample of his handwriting, and a summary of what inspired him to write the address in the first place.
“The final imploring words of this moving speech were ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,’ stated an editorial in the same edition. … “Freedom remains in danger. In fact, only a minority of the world’s people know freedom as Americans know it. …”
Three days later, John F. Kennedy, a great champion of freedom, was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
Certainly the Daily Whig & Courier wasn’t alone in praising Everett’s oratory at the expense of Lincoln’s. On the 150th anniversary of the most often quoted speech in American history, I thought a history lesson was in order. No apology needed.