What If: The Gettysburg Address Is Never Given

What If: Lincoln Hadn’t Delivered The Gettysburg Address?

The ceremony at the dedication of the national military cemetery, the first of its kind in the United States, went off as planned at mid-day, Thursday, November 19, 1863. But for any number of very plausible reasons, Lincoln couldn’t attend. Maybe he declined the initial invitation to “give a few remarks.” Maybe he accepted and had something unexpected yet important pop up at the last minute. Maybe the illness that actually hit him late in the afternoon of November 19 had struck him a day or so earlier. Or maybe the ceremony’s organizers determined that they couldn’t squeeze him into an already packed agenda for the event. All plausible reasons for having the Gettysburg Address never happen.

Then what?

Let’s be honest. It’s a speech, a very short speech. Erase words and what do you have? Not much, and it’s likely no one ever knows the difference.

Hold on, wait a minute. Would the same be true if Jesus Christ never gives the Sermon on the Mount? Words, speech, sounds filling the air for a period of minutes. Who would have missed it had it never happened? Well, a whole bunch of people when you think of it.

Lincoln isn’t Christ and the Gettysburg Address isn’t the Sermon on the Mount. But the reference to Christ puts a new feel on it when you take a minute or two and then really begin to think about the effects of what-if and the Gettysburg Address.

Start with now, 2012 and the first part of the 21st century.

Think about all the 4th of July events that you’ve attended or watched on television or the internet. So many of them—hundreds, I’d guess—have included or will include a reading of the Gettysburg Address, often set to music by American composer Aaron Copeland. In fact, I’d wager that many people would tell you that somehow the two events (Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address) must have happened at roughly the same time and were two pieces of a single event. My supposition isn’t mock historical ignorance. I’m simply suggesting how routine it has become for the Gettysburg Address to be part of the 4th of July and the hole it would leave if Lincoln’s speech had never existed.

So, if Lincoln doesn’t give his speech, then it’s not a part of our Independence Day celebrations. OK. Now those minutes in our 21st century celebrations are filled by some other thing, another song or speech or part of a speech. (There’s a great question—what other American speech or statement would rise to the level of inclusion on Independence Day?)

Since Lincoln’s remarks aren’t there, you begin to take a small but very significant step in pushing the American Revolution and Civil War apart. I’m referring to their existence in our popular culture, our shared yet unspoken thoughts. We’ve just cut, sliced, and severed a vital chord between the two moments of our past. And I think that means the Civil War takes a step closer to only being a war between regions over interests and less of a war within a union over founding, purpose, and vision. The tie between 1776 and 1863 is loosened. The result is that you can begin to push the Civil War into a distinctively alternative direction in meaning for us today.

What else from the what-if? (right: Lincoln at 2nd Inaugural)

I don’t think Lincoln would have given the same remarks elsewhere, at some other venue. He didn’t really recapture his Gettysburg speech in other speeches after late 1863. He wrote the speech for the event, and that was all.

The same point can be reached from a different angle. Would his mind have formulated the speech and its content in another setting? I don’t think so. Lincoln’s speech was rooted in death, carnage, tragedy, and meaning. Without the spur to contemplate the spilling of blood on the American fabric, Lincoln probably doesn’t develop the speech the way that he actually did.

Interestingly, I don’t think the absence of his words would have changed any specific policies or strategies that he used from fall 1863 until his death in spring 1865. He would have kept the same line of approach that he actually employed—pursue the war, end slavery throughout the nation, and seek to offer compassion and understanding to a fallen foe. No, the more I think of it, the more I’m convinced that the effects of no Gettysburg Address would have been in the distant future.

Keep going with me here, we’re headed to an interesting place. The Gettysburg Address was emphasized only after Lincoln was killed. And particularly for us today, this speech is open to many people’s embrace, whether Christian or not. If the speech doesn’t exist, the next best thing for Lincoln’s memory is to grab hold of his 2nd inaugural address, a speech of strikingly Christian tones. For so many people today, in an increasingly secular world, the comfort and natural ease in gripping Lincoln’s memory is made that much harder if the Gettysburg Address doesn’t exist. Lincoln’s place in the American mind of the early 21st century would be weakened.

The Gettysburg Address is Lincoln’s best claim for being tied to the civic side of the American mind. Without the speech, once again we see the chance grow that, as time unfolds, Lincoln’s meaning is pushed in another direction.

Something else changes about Lincoln in our history, too. I can’t count for you the number of times that I’ve heard people comment about the remarkable contrast between the 3 minutes of the Gettysburg Address and the 2 hours of the keynote speech at the same dedication event (Edward Everett gave the keynote). Hundreds, I’ll bet.

Thus, Lincoln without the speech drops a notch in our estimation of his communication ability. It’s not that we think less of him but that we don’t have such a powerful illustration of skill at communication. We especially like his knack for knowing that fewer words are better than more. It’s one of the endearingly commonsensical points that makes Lincoln so appealing across the years. If the Gettysburg Address is never given, we have one less story of Lincoln as the common man communicator. The basket is lighter and that’s not a good thing.

A few hundred words, a few minutes long, a bright but brisk fall day nearly 150 years ago, and the effects flow down to us today. All the best, Dan