Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Gettysburg Redress: Second Thoughts about Second Thoughts

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Gettysburg Redress: Second Thoughts about Second Thoughts

Article excerpt

In November, The Patriot-News, a daily newspaper published in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, marked the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address with a correction. The newspaper's ancestor, The Patriot & Union, had declared in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln's "silly remarks" at the dedication of the Gettysburg military cemetery deserved "a veil of oblivion." Now, the paper's editors announced in an editorial, "we have come to a different conclusion." Their Civil War-era predecessors had failed to recognize the speech's "momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance," they said, adding that "The Patriot-News regrets the error."

Time, NPR, the Associated Press, and dozens of other news organizations ran lighthearted stories about the belated mea culpa, and it inspired a sketch on Saturday Night Live. An article on The Patriot-News' Web site quoted deputy opinion editor Matthew Zencey, who had written the correction: "This must be what it feels like when a baseball player hits a grand slam." Zencey also explained the correction's subtext: "Gee, can you believe what rock-heads ran this outfit 150 years ago?"

But Patriot-News reporter Donald Gilliland reviewed the paper's 1863 articles, interviewed scholars, and discovered that the tale of the "silly remarks" editorial is, like many episodes in the Civil War, more nuanced and complicated than it seems.

To start with, the paper didn't treat President Lincoln's remarks as inconsequential. The "silly remarks" editorial was just a small part of the coverage. The newspaper also published the president's speech in full.

In addition, one article called Lincoln's speech "brief and calculated to arouse deep feeling"--a rather generous appraisal, considering the source. Not only was The Patriot & Union a Democratic newspaper, reflexively opposed to Lincoln; it also had had a run-in with the administration the previous year. For publishing a handbill it considered seditious, the Union Army had jailed the paper's owners and editors for 16 days. …

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