If the speech itself can’t be overrated, its creation myth certainly can. Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of the flap of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, a successful writer of sentimental novels, popularized this tale in
Andrews’s intent was to celebrate the genius of Lincoln. But Edward Everett was not on the train to Gettysburg. More important, she misrepresents the way Lincoln wrote and spoke. His eloquence was the result of careful preparation, followed up by the hard work of continuing to revise and edit his important speeches.
Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, offered words that surprised his audience: “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
The Second Inaugural is remembered for its conciliatory conclusion, “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” but the fiery words of judgment that immediately preceded it signaled Lincoln’s absolute determination to create a new nation free of the sin of slavery. There and then, on March 4, 1865, the audience wanted him to extol the North and demonize the South. Here and now Lincoln has been targeted as a racist, and we are told that his only motive for emancipating the slaves was military expediency.
No American President, in the recipes of inaugural addresses that usually contain large helpings of self-congratulation, has dared suggest that within the American nation there exists a great evil. Lincoln chose to devote a sizable amount of his address to the offense of slavery. Not slavery, not Southern slavery, but American slavery .
Abraham Lincoln’s words are worth hearing today because he spoke in a compelling way of both judgment and reconciliation.