January 14, 2008

The Other “€œGettysburg Address”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

One of the high points of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s career was his leadership of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,â€? in August of 1963. It was the occasion of his famous “I Have a Dreamâ€? speech, which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The speech was given on August 28, which was just nine days after the one hundredth anniversary of another famous speech, President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.â€? King began his speech with the words, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.â€? This was clearly designed to remind listeners of Lincoln’s opening sentence, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.â€?

Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Addressâ€? is one of the best-known and most inspiring productions of American literature and history. Many school children have found it easy to memorize, since it is only ten sentences and 272 words long. It’s climactic final line may be the most concise description of the ideal of democracy in America, a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.â€?

But for those who attended that event honoring 7,500 Civil War dead buried at the Gettysburg cemetery, some from the South, some from the North, Lincoln’s statement was not the true “Gettysburg Address.â€? That was delivered by the keynote speaker, Edward Everett, a man almost forgotten in our day, but one of America’s foremost orators in 1863.

Edward Everett (1794-1865) had a wonderful resume. A native of Boston, he was educated at Harvard and at Göttingen University in Germany. Most of his public life was spent in the Boston area, where he was a Unitarian minister, on the faculty at Harvard, elected by the citizens of Massachusetts as a U.S. Congressman (1825-35), and the State’s Governor (1835-40). He spent four years as Ambassador to Great Britain before returning to become President of Harvard (1846-49). He then served in Washington as secretary of State (1852-53) and as a Senator from Massachusetts (1853-54). During all this time he was a celebrated orator, and his speeches were always well attended.

In 1860, the storm clouds were gathering over the issues between the North and the South that led to America’s bloody Civil War. Everett tried to be a peacemaker between the slavery/ states’ rights activists of the South and the anti-slavery federalists of the North. Both seemed too radical, too uncompromising. He became part of a middle way by running as the vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in the 1860 election. Their platform said nothing about slavery in an attempt to hold the Union together. Everett’s party finished a poor third in the election, which was won by Lincoln, and he had to watch helplessly as the divided Nation entered into five years of awful conflict.

When the organizers of the dedication service for the Gettysburg cemetery were planning the event, Edward Everett seemed to be the best possible speaker. Still seen as a conciliatory figure, he would certainly rise to the occasion and speak the words that would help bring the Nation together. President Lincoln, almost as an afterthought, was asked to make “a few appropriate remarks,â€? just before a choral dirge and the benediction.

Everett really worked to prepare for his great oratorical moment, making sure his words were eloquent and forceful. There was much that had to be said, and nothing should be left out. Everett’s speech added up to 13,607 words and took two long hours to deliver!

Later in the program, President Lincoln, in a high voice with a Kentucky accent, presented his “few appropriate remarks.â€? It took about two minutes. There are varying eyewitness accounts about the effectiveness of Lincoln’s brief speech, mostly reflecting the political bias of the listeners. But Lincoln’s speech, not Everett’s is the true “Gettysburg Address.â€? Every generation since has found in it the soul of America and an expression of the Nation’s highest aspirations.

Dr. King pointed out in his speech, one hundred years later, that the ideal of freedom was still unrealized by people of color, who had descended from slaves, and remained subjugated in a segregated society. Everett’s middle way was ineffective in 1863, and Dr. King knew that conciliation and patience would not work in 1963 either.

Of course, we’ve put all this behind us. Or have we? There are still disturbing indications that racial discrimination, prejudice and unequal opportunity are stubborn parts of American society.

Let Edward Everett be an example to us. All the academic degrees, vast leadership experience—even 13,607 words— cannot solve this basic moral problem. Respect for every individual created in God’s image is a simple matter of right and wrong. Let us rededicate ourselves to the highest goals, as expressed by President Lincoln and Dr. King. We can’t compromise on seeing God’s image in one another, and we can’t hide our shortcomings under an avalanche of words.