Everett, Not Lincoln, Gets Star Billing as Gettysburg Orator

By Walbert, Terrance P. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

Everett, Not Lincoln, Gets Star Billing as Gettysburg Orator


Walbert, Terrance P., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated 135 years ago, five months after the savage battle that is being commemorated this week. At the dedication, Abraham Lincoln delivered perhaps the most famous speech in the nation's history. Asked to name the main speaker that November day in 1863, however, most of us likely would draw a blank.

A few might recall the name Edward Everett and that he spoke for two hours. But Lincoln and his address were the principal attractions that day, were they not, rather than Everett and his long declamation? The truth is otherwise.

Everett's oration, not Lincoln's "dedicatory remarks," was the highlight of the day. "The name of Hon. Edward Everett was submitted to the Governors of all the States interested, as the orator to deliver the address on that occasion," David Wills reported, "and they unanimously concurred in him as the person eminently suitable for the purpose."

Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer and agent for the governors of the Northern states, set the ceremonies for Oct. 23 in inviting Everett to speak. Everett replied that the occasion demanded "as full a narrative of the events of the three important days as the limits of the hour will admit," as well as "some appropriate discussion of the political character of the great struggle."

Previous commitments, time for preparation of the speech, two days of travel and one day to walk the battlefield made the October date impossible, he replied. Everett named Nov. 19 as the earliest he could speak, and Wills moved the ceremonies to Nov. 19, 1863.

Edward Everett was known most for his speech "The Character of Washington," a two-hour address he delivered more than 100 times during the 1850s. The speech raised $70,000, which Everett donated toward the purchase of Mount Vernon as a national shrine.

Everett was born in Dorchester, Mass., on April 11, 1794. After graduation from Harvard at age 17, he became the first American to earn a doctorate from a foreign university (1817 at Goettingen in Germany). He taught Greek at Harvard and was later the college's president. Everett served as a member of Congress from Massachusetts (1825-35) and was minister to Great Britain (1841-45), secretary of state (1852-53) and a U.S. senator (1853-54).

A Whig, an ally of Daniel Webster and a moderate on the slavery question, Everett championed sectional compromise. When the Whig party broke up after the 1852 election, Everett did not embrace the new Republican Party, as did former Whigs such as Lincoln and William H. Seward.

In 1860, Everett ran as vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party on a ticket with John Bell of Tennessee. After Lincoln's election and the secession of the lower South, Everett still hoped for a peaceful outcome. If war could be avoided, he believed, the seven cotton states would be back in the Union within two years.

But the firing on Fort Sumter changed that, and Everett supported Lincoln's call for troops. In the summer of 1861, at age 67 and in poor health, Everett toured the North calling for all-out support for the administration.

For 19th-century Americans, public speaking was both entertainment and education. Political campaigns, religious revivals, lecture tours, trials and national holidays drew crowds to halls, churches, tents and open fields. The best orators held the attention of their audiences sometimes for hours.

Everett's speeches reflected careful preparation. He delivered them entirely from memory, sometimes condensing long parts and ad-libbing when necessary. …

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Everett, Not Lincoln, Gets Star Billing as Gettysburg Orator
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