In observing the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, here's a signal moment from his presidency. It reminds us that in our society, and possibly every one, the record of recognizing and valuing contemporary ideas and individuals later anointed as great or significant, is inconsistent at best; in the moment, they're as likely to be dismissed and derided.
Lincoln lived in the hostile squint of such myopias, until the morning of April 15, 1865, when at his deathbed, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, "Now he belongs to the ages" (or, some wondered, did he say "angels?"). Perfect dignity was elusive for our 16th President.
On Nov. 19, 1863, as Abraham Lincoln stepped to the rostrum before a crowd of 15,000 in a Pennsylvania field, a photographer began setting up his cumbersome gear in order to capture the moment for all time. But before he'd had a chance to so much as steady his tripod, Lincoln sat down again, two minutes later.
To quite a few of his contemporaries, it was more likely that Lincoln would be remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history, rather than one of the finest. He was, for many, a walking caricature an uncouth man of the prairie who never expressed a serious thought without tagging it with a rustic joke.
Earlier that month, a committee planning the ceremonies to dedicate a cemetery for the dead of last July's Battle of Gettysburg, sent Lincoln an invitation to say a few words.
It was an afterthought. There were two reasons why the organizers of the event had not thought Lincoln an appropriate speaker: One, the states were sharing the expense of the cemetery; it wasn't a national project. The other had to do with Lincoln himself. There was a worry that he might not behave.
A letter accompanying the President's invitation lectured him on the "imposing and solemnly impressive" nature of the ceremonies. And it laid out Lincoln's small and purely dedicatory role in the proceedings:
"It is the desire that after the oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use, by a few remarks."
Lincoln accepted despite the obvious slights. The main speaker, Edward Everett of Massachusetts, had been invited in mid-September.
The newspapers either didn't care or were outright offended that Lincoln would be speaking at Gettysburg. The latter group complained that a ceremony to honor fallen soldiers was no place for a partisan speech by a president fighting for his political survival.
For Lincoln, it was business as usual. "These comments constitute a fair specimen of what has occurred to me throughout life," he said. "I've endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice, and have received a great deal of kindness not quite free from ridicule. I'm used to it."
The morning of the ceremonies, the crowd wandered around the site of the three-day battle looking for souvenirs: a button, a buckle, or a piece of shrapnel that may have killed more than one man. A little after noon, following a prayer by the House Chaplain, the principal speaker former Governor of Massachusetts, President of Harvard, Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore was introduced.
"Standing beneath this serene sky," the 69-year-old Edward Everett began, it was too solemn a moment to "be dismissed with a few sentimental or patriotic commonplaces." True to his word, Everett rang forth with enough commonplaces to fill two hours.
At last, Everett ended: "Down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battle of Gettysburg."
After appropriate applause for so impressive an oration, a simple introduction brought Lincoln to the rostrum. While the complacent photographer drew nearly as much attention from the crowd as did the speaker, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.
"The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States," wrote the Chicago Times in Lincoln's own state.
The almost shocking brevity of the speech caught everyone off guard, photographers and listeners alike. Even Lincoln was troubled. As he sat down amid polite applause, he said to his friend and bodyguard, Ward Lamon, "It's a flat failure, and the people are disappointed."
But the condemnation, it turned out, was by no means unanimous. Another editor called it, "The right thing in the right place, and a perfect thing altogether." Edward Everett himself wrote to Lincoln, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes." Later, Everett asked for a copy of the part-read, part-improvised speech.
In response to this and other requests, Lincoln made small changes in five of the 10 "silly, flat, and dishwatery sentences" which, in their shocking brevity, dedicated a battlefield cemetery and set a benchmark for American writing. Larger than life, interminable orations would never quite sound the same.
Lincoln's speeches, often called uninspired, began to be heard for what they were: deceptively simple, powerful, eternal as granite, and profoundly inspiring.
ResourcesAbraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Ill.
Gettysburg National Military Park, National Park Service