The first Gettysburg Address: A new bond of union

National Constitution Center

Al Brophy from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill looks at the historical importance of the main speech given at Gettysburg on November 23, 1863: the oration of the day’s featured speaker, Edward Everett.

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If your fifth grade social studies class was like mine, in addition to memorizing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address you also heard about some long-winded Harvard professor who spoke for hours before Lincoln and said nothing worthwhile.

Amidst all of the talk of Lincoln’s address, I’m going to refocus on that long-winded figure: Edward Everett.  It turns out that he was, actually, quite sought-after as a speaker in those years when oratory was a primary form of entertainment.  Many were too busy to read and print was too  expensive anyway, so public addresses were a common form of communication for political ideas.

For nearly 40 years Everett had been the entertainment at major public events.  He gave a speech to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society welcoming General Lafayette to Boston in 1824.  In part because of the success of that speech, over the next several decades Everett went on to key positions in public life.  He moved from professor of literature at Harvard to member of the United States House of Representatives, governor of Massachusetts for a term, interim Secretary of State, and then president of Harvard.  All the while he continued to deliver beautifully composed addresses filled with classical and literary allusions.  Those addresses pulled on chords of sentiment for patriotic purposes.  In 1850, for instance, he spoke at the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument.  Everett traveled the country north and south in the 1850s delivering speeches to raise money for the purchase and preservation of George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon.

Though he was active during the Age of Jackson, Everett was a Whig, which meant that his speeches emphasized the Constitution, the importance of Union, education, and economic development.  It made sense to invite Everett.  He was someone lots of people knew and wanted to hear.  There was another reason to invite Everett: since the early 1830s cemetery dedications often included orations.  Speakers from Supreme Court Justices Joseph Story and Robert McLean to transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and hundreds of other lesser-known religious and political leaders delivered addresses at cemetery dedications.

Nearly 100 of those speeches were published.  They often linked cemeteries to the American constitutional order, for cemeteries were places where we discharged our duties of respect to the past and where we learned about the future.  The cultivated garden cemeteries, known as rural cemeteries, brought beauty and order to American life.  The cemeteries were private charitable organizations that brought people together and educated them in values of Union, patriotism, order, and cooperation in creating public services.  The cemeteries also brought people together in death and provided a place of final repose.  They were, as an orator at the dedication of Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood cemetery said, “great and beautiful republics of the dead.”  Cemeteries were both signs of civilization and inspirations to yet more economic and moral progress, for they served as models of the American republic.

Even the little town of Gettysburg had dedicated a rural cemetery, “Ever Green,” back in 1855.  That’s what gave the name to famous cemetery ridge where the United States army beat back Pickett’s charge on July 3.  Those soldiers along cemetery ridge put into operation the principles of perpetual union that had been spoken about at cemetery dedications for decades.  Recent research suggests that Everett and Lincoln delivered their addresses inside the grounds of the Ever Green Cemetery.

But where the cemetery dedication addresses before the Civil War were about the role of cemeteries in promotion of moral values, such as patriotism and religion, Everett’s speech was about the duty owed the people buried in Gettysburg, the War itself, and ways to put the country back together again.  Everett’s primary theme was the debt owed to the United States soldiers buried in the National Cemetery and to the rest of the soldiers.  This was, after all, a tribute.

The address began with reference to the graves of patriots and the “eloquent silence of God and Nature” in the cemetery.  Then he turned to the burial practices of ancient Athens, where war heroes were buried at public expense, to establish an ancient and honorable lineage for this national cemetery.

Everett called upon images of sentiment and patriotism to consecrate the cemetery.  “As my eye ranges over the fields whose sods were so lately moistened by the blood of gallant and loyal men, I feel, as never before, how truly it was said of old that is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country,” he said.  Then he turned to just how critical the situation was for the United States at the time of the battle.  The consequences would have been dire, indeed, he said, if “those who sleep beneath our feet, and their gallant comrades who surrive … had failed in their duty on those memorable days.”  Everett told the story of the entire war; much of the address was about the campaign of 1863, with a detailed description of the Gettysburg battle that highlighted the heroism of the Union soldiers and the debt owed them for protecting the Northern population.

Then he turned from the history of battle to larger questions about the issues at stake in the War.  Everett used the occasion to plead that case of the United States and our Constitution against the Confederate rebels.  He quoted Jefferson Davis’ statement that the United States was “the best government ever instituted by man … under which the people have been prosperous beyond comparison.”  While the rebels claimed to be the successors to the American Revolutionaries, Everett spoke of their crime against the Constitution and labeled their actions treason.  He rebutted what he called the Confederacy’s “wretched sophistries” of their interpretation of the Constitution.  Where southerners believed that the Constitution set up sovereign states, Everett responded that the Constitution’s preamble says it is established by “the People of the United States.”  Everett presented a concise version of the United States’ constitutional argument that the Union was perpetual and that states could not secede.

The address called for restoration of the Union.  A truce with the Confederacy would be a disaster for the United States, for the people loyal to the United States in the South, and for the enslaved people of the South.  Everett wanted restoration of the Union and he concluded with a call for reconciliation and an argument that reconciliation was possible. Everett drew on many examples from European history stretching back hundreds of years.

This was a deeply patriotic address, which sought support for the cause by celebrating the soldiers and also looking forward to a restored Union.  It was a lengthy address that dealt with a lot of the United States’ recent history, with our Constitutional history, and with European history.  Despite its length, it served the purpose of Union.  Because of the deeds of the patriots buried at Gettysburg and those who survived, those in the audience that day felt a “new bond of Union.”

What followed Everett’s lengthy address was, as many have observed, entirely different.  Where Everett had told a story of recent history, about both politics and the military campaign, then made a call for Union and reconciliation, Lincoln spoke in dramatically more general terms.  Lincoln spoke in broad terms about the sacrifices at Gettysburg and then appealed to broad principles, such as the “new birth of freedom.”  Everett was a tactician, who made in detail the case for Union and for reunification.  Lincoln was the visionary who spoke in general and broad terms and helped remake American democracy.  As with so much in the Civil War, the contributions of many were needed to liberate our country and have a “new bond of Union.”

Al Brophy teaches law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  His next book, University, Court, and Slave, on pro-slavery jurisprudence in the old South, will appear from Oxford next year.  And his recent essay on the constitutional significance of cemetery dedication addresses before the Civil War is available at the social science research network:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2304305

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