President Obama and the Gettysburg Address: The Outrageousness

The “Conservative Press” and many GOP Senators and Congressmen are in an uproar over Abraham Lincoln and what we call “The Gettysburg Address.”  Included in that group is Louisiana Congressman John Fleming.

The uproar concerns a recitation of the speech made by President Barack Obama for filmmaker Ken Burns and his website  The recitation by President Obama did not contain the phrase “under God” which is the reason for this hullabaloo.  Type something like Obama and God or Gettysburg into any search engine and be overwhelmed with “news” results about how the President hates God, hates the United States, was born in Kenya, and probably even something about broccoli, jelly beans, or not winning one for the Gipper.

I am neither a Lincoln scholar nor a Civil War scholar.  In Southern History my background research for context begins in the Reconstruction period which is before the assassination, while my “expertise” is concentrated in events of the 20th century.  Some students, especially survey level, will say that I give a compelling lecture on the Lincoln assassination as I detail the reason for the lack of attempt to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson that night and the brutal attack on Secretary of State William Seward and his son along with Lincoln’s assassination.

Still, I learned about the different versions of the Gettysburg Address in elementary school.  I’m not kidding; we had that speech as an example on the necessity to revise speeches and papers in a public school in Livingston Parish.

I did not click the link on the Burns website concerning the versions, but here is a quick synopsis of how I might present that material in a classroom to undergraduates.

The popular belief that Lincoln wrote the speech on the train is not accurate. Lincoln wrote the majority of the speech in the White House prior just as his other speeches. The original draft is called the “Nicolay” version for Lincoln’s personal secretary John Nicolay.  Lincoln wrote this on WH stationary with an additional page on a different card stock most likely written in Gettysburg.

The second copy is called the “Hay” version for a White House assistant John Hay who went with Lincoln to Gettysburg. This copy includes handwritten changes in Lincoln’s pen.

Lincoln wrote the remaining three versions after the event. The “Everett” version went to the event’s primary speaker Edward Everett who spoke for approximately 2 hours compared to Lincoln’s few minutes. The “Bancroft” version Lincoln gave to historian George Bancroft to be used for a fundraiser. Since Lincoln wrote on both sides of the paper, this rendition could not be used for lithographic engraving.

Hence, we have the final version, the “Bliss” version which Lincoln wrote for Alexander Bliss, the stepson of George Bancroft. Bliss requested a copy specifically for engraving. The “Bliss” version is the only one dated and signed by Abraham Lincoln, and the one which has been reproduced. It was not written, however, until 1864.

Where are they now?

Of the 5 versions: “Nicolay” and “Hay” are at the Library of Congress. The “Everett” copy is at the Lincoln Museum and Library. The “Bliss” copy is on display in the Lincoln Room. The “Bancroft” copy is now owned by Cornell University.

Ken Burns and the scandal

For whatever reason, Burns asked President Obama to record a recitation of the original Nicolay version which does not contain the phrase “under God” just as the Hay version does not contain the phrase “under God.”

To me, that should be the end of the story.  It’s not; however, as apparently the “conservative press” believes that the entire American public is ignorant about all aspects of US history.  Somehow, this story warrants untold hours of time on the clock as it illustrates that our President does not believe in God.  Members of Congress find the anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg far more important than any work on matters such as infrastructure or the economy.  Why should the “conservative press” and Members of Congress do any work, when they reap great rewards simply by criticizing the President and not offering any alternatives other than status quo?

Here’s the thing Congressman Fleming and those inflaming readers for their own benefit.

Until 1864, no copy of the Gettysburg Address written by Lincoln contained any mention of “God.”


Until 1864, no copy of the Gettysburg Address written by Lincoln contained any mention of “God.”

What we have are the AP papers, primarily the NY trio Tribune, Times, and Herald, and what were independents at the time such as the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer who included the phrase “under God” in their respective papers.  All of the AP accounts were taken from the notes of J.L. Gilbert by shorthand and from an opportunity to look at Lincoln’s handwritten speech.

It’s true that these newspapers each include the “under God,” but they also differ with a number of phrases and wordings.  Even the NY trio taken from the same source has differences in punctuation and capitalization.

I guess in this case if it is printed in the newspaper, it must be the truth according to Congressman Fleming, Rush Limbaugh, and these publications and other individuals who “want to bring back the Constitution.”

Congressman Fleming, what is known is that Lincoln first wrote the “under God” phrase in the Everett version which is an obvious careful revision of the 2 earlier written versions along with additions and phrasings from numerous newspaper accounts including those from Gilbert and the AP. The penmanship is far more deliberate and precise in this 4 February 1864 draft than the prior two drafts. There is a debate as to whether or not Lincoln prepared that version prior to receiving a letter from Everett requesting a copy at the end of January, but that is it.

These individuals and publications blasting President Obama do not include any academic or primary documentation in their articles, but here are some so that you may see where my opinions derive.

The best academic source for this scandal remains The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln even though compilation began back in 1953. The Abraham Lincoln Association has made an electronic version.

Another academic source is the 1905 Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln.  It’s available from the Library of Congress.

Out of curiosity

I did a single term search for “God” in the Collected Works. Within the 8 volumes and nearly 5,000 pages, “God” appears only 313 times in a search of the full text. Volumes 3 through 8 along with the index are divided into 92 individual chapters, while Volumes 1 and 2 are single threads of approximately 570 pages each. For most US elected officials, one would expect “God” to appear more often in speeches and written correspondence. With Lincoln, however, that number is actually quite high if one knows anything of Lincoln and religion which is a very complex subject.

While there may be others more detailed, this article does reference the Herndon letter which renewed the academic debate over Lincoln’s religious positions a couple of years ago and gives a brief glimpse into the debate which is well known in academic history circles.  I thank the Good Lord that my qualifying exams did not enter a Lincoln and religion phase as Puritans and religion during the colonial period already had my head spinning.

How or why this is such a scandal amazes me.  Ken Burns asked President Obama to recite the “original” version written by Lincoln. It is a fact that Lincoln did not have “under God” in that version. Abraham Lincoln’s view of God changed dramatically throughout his life. Cut out the popular image and martyr of Lincoln, many people today might not regard his feelings as Christian in today’s sense. Most fail to realize that until the assassination, Lincoln was one of the most despised Presidents ever in the US.  That was in the North which recognized him as President.

Why was he despised in the North?  Imagine a President issuing a call for volunteers to serve 90 days and have it lead to more American lives lost in 4 years than during the history of military conflict from colonial to present day combined and one can understand the hatred.  Politically in 1864, Lincoln did not run on the Republican ticket for reelection.  He ran on the National Union ticket with a Democratic running mate in Andrew Johnson.  His Democratic opponent in that election was Union General George McClellan.

Members of Congress, United States Senators, if you want to criticize the President, at least pick a real issue.  Trust me, there are many.  Then, instead of just criticizing, why don’t you actually present some alternative or some solution other than status quo? “Conservative press” and “conservative” commentators do you really know this little about US History, think every American is stupid or ignorant, or is it just that defaming Obama means more than anything else including the United States of America?