Tom Kacich: Lincoln's speech sparked criticism from some papers
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is considered an oratorical masterpiece today, but it wasn't viewed that way at the time.
The 150th anniversary of the speech, consecrating the site of a battleground turned national cemetery in southern Pennsylvania, will be marked Tuesday.
There are, unfortunately, no copies — print or microfilm — of how the story played in the Champaign County newspapers that may have been published at that time (probably the Central Illinois Union & Gazette and the Central Illinois Patriot).
But there is microfilm of newspapers published in Springfield and Chicago in November 1863, and some of their remarks about Lincoln's speech were unkind.
The Chicago Times, on Nov. 23, 1863, accused Lincoln of "ignorant rudeness," "boorishness" and "vulgarity" for including "political partisanship" in his Gettysburg speech.
It was especially upset about his statement that "all men are created equal," and cited the three-fifths rule, contained in the Constitution, for counting slaves.
"Do these provisions in the Constitution dedicate the nation to 'the proposition that all men are created equal?' Mr. Lincoln occupies his present position by virtue of this Constitution, and is sworn to the maintenance and enforcement of these provisions," the anti-Lincoln, pro-Democratic Times said.
"It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dared he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges."
But Lincoln's hometown newspaper, the Illinois State Register, was especially savage in its criticism of the speech at Gettysburg.
"Nothing could have been more inappropriate than to have invited the prince of jokers, Old Abe, to be present at the consecration of the Gettysburg Cemetery," the Register wrote on Nov. 24, 1863.
"But having been invited, it was hoped by his apologists that he would at least refrain from his clownish jokes about standing over the new-made graves of thousands who had been slain in the recent battle."
Lincoln could do no right, in the Register's opinion, even when he tried to avoid making any further comment after the speech.
"It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all," Lincoln said to laughter from the crowd.
"Believing that it is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further."
The Register wrote: "No wonder the crowd laughed — doubtless Old Abe was in one of his most comical moods. It is just like him. True to his ancient instincts of telling jokes, and getting off funny, or 'foolish,' things to make people laugh."
The newspaper accused Lincoln of foolishness at other Civil War sites, including Antietam where it was said that Lincoln "called on one of the party to sing a negro song to enliven the scene!"
"No wonder then that at Gettysburg, where thousands had congregated to witness the solemn and impressive consecration of a national grave yard, he should appear before a crowd with no other object than to create 'laughter.'"
The following day, the Register parroted the Chicago Times' criticism of the speech for its reference to all men being created equal.
When "he uttered the words he knew he was falsifying history, and enunciating an exploded political humbug," the Register cackled.
The Register reflected the political realities of Sangamon County at that time; Lincoln lost the county in the 1860 presidential election.
The Illinois State Journal, also published in Springfield, was more kind to Lincoln, reporting that after his Gettysburg address there followed "immense applause, and three cheers given for him, and also three cheers for the governors of the states" at the site.
The Chicago Tribune, always friendly to Lincoln, overlooked the president's 272 words of remarks at Gettysburg and focused on Edward Everett's two-hour speech.
"It is in the best style and vein of the 'model orator,' and will well repay perusal," the Tribune said.
The Springfield (Mass.) Republican's editorial reflected today's view of Lincoln's address. It said that his "little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.
"Then it has the merit of unexpectedness in its verbal perfection and beauty. ... Turn back and read it over, it will repay study as a model speech. Strong feelings and a large brain are its parents."