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This Day in History: The Gettysburg Address

On this day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivers his famous Gettysburg address. Did you know that no one knows exactly where he gave the speech? And no one knows precisely what he said? Several different transcripts of the speech exist, each with slightly different phrasing.

His speech wasn’t even supposed to be the main feature that day! Instead, a two-hour oration by a former Secretary of State, Edward Everett, was supposed to be the highlight.

Lincoln’s two-minute speech would go down in history. Everett’s has been mostly forgotten.

Perhaps Everett saw the writing on the wall? He wrote to the President the very next day, apparently already realizing the impact of Lincoln’s words. “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you,” Everett wrote, “with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Both men had been slated to speak at a dedication ceremony for Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Union forces had won a battle there mere months earlier, but that battle had been a brutal, 3-day affair. Fifty-one thousand soldiers had been left dead or wounded.

It was a costly victory, to say the least.

Lincoln had prepared remarks, written on a slip of paper. Legend has it that he threw the address together as he rode on a train toward Gettysburg, but he actually spent a bit more time on it than that. By the time he got to the ceremony, he had prepared remarks that he had carefully considered, and he reportedly used them. But here’s the interesting part: Modern scholars aren’t sure which of the five known, still-existing transcripts Lincoln used that day—or potentially he could even have used an unknown, sixth transcript!

So what are these five known, still-existing transcripts?

Two are copies that Lincoln gave to his personal secretaries. Three others were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes, but he wrote them well after his November 19 address.

The version that is most often cited is the transcript that was requested by historian George Bancroft; he intended to use if at a fundraiser for soldiers. The request was fulfilled, but the final transcript was ultimately delivered to Bancroft’s stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss. The so-called “Bliss copy” is the last known transcript written in Lincoln’s hand.   It is also the only transcript that has his signature.

In this final text, Lincoln had removed one instance of the word “here,” which is in all other copies of the speech. Historian Garry Wills finds this last omission important: “[Lincoln] was still making such improvements,” He notes. It “suggests that he was more concerned with a perfected text than with an ‘original’ one.”

The Bliss text is the version that is emblazoned on the Lincoln Monument. It famously concludes:

“[W]e 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.”

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