Seven score and ten years ago, Abraham Lincoln delivered a Gettysburg Address he thought the world would little note nor long remember.
The President’s prediction could not have been more inaccurate; his 272-word speech reverberates through American political rhetoric endlessly as his stature casts the most difficult shadow in which any speaker can tread.
While nearly every president has visited Gettysburg, only a handful of Presidents have spoken at the hallowed ground.
With Lincoln’s scribe John Hay as his Secretary of State, Theodore Roosevelt appropriately became the first president bold enough to follow Lincoln’s remarks.
In the Soldier’s National Cemetery on Memorial Day 1904
, Roosevelt tied Lincoln to the current struggle for the expansion of civil rights and national supremacy of law.
Roosevelt called the Civil War “a great war for righteousness; a war waged for the noblest ideals, but waged also in thoroughgoing, practical fashion.”
When Roosevelt summarized the battle, he connected soldiers’ sacrifices for a cause to an audience mostly too young to remember Gettysburg.He revered Lincoln’s words not only for voicing ideals but compelling a country to act upon them. He evoked Lincoln’s spirit without trying to mimic his speech.
Thank Heaven that it can not be printed beside the Gettysburg address. A speech may be a pretty good speech of the hour, or of the day, or even of the year, and yet be ruined if put side by side with one of the two or three great classics of human eloquence—of that eloquence which shows forth its human soul.
However, Roosevelt fearlessly evoked Lincoln for political gain. Running for a third term as president, he spoke softly at a campaign luncheon on Memorial Day 1912
at the battlefield but used Lincoln as a big stick.
His speech mostly marveled at national unity between the North and the South as he divided the Republican Party and sought to build a Progressive coalition with southern Democrats. However, Roosevelt ricocheted questions about his imperialistic policies and unprecedented pursuit of a third-term by reminding reporters that Lincoln had been described as a dictator in his time.
Wilson beat Roosevelt in the 1912 election but he echoed the Bull Moose’s sentiments about unity at a July 4, 1913 reunion
Fifty years after the battle, before the first audience of Union and Confederate veterans assembled at Gettysburg, Wilson opens with a promise: “I need not tell you what the Battle of Gettysburg meant.” He delivers a cloud of fine words (“splendid valor,” “manly devotion,” “benign and majestic”) and makes no mention of Lincoln or the cause for which the soldiers fought. Wilson simply asks to commit a wartime spirit to times of peace, because “War fitted us for action, and action never ceases.” Only a little more than a year later, the world will remind Wilson that words of peace do not always cause war to cease.
When war came, Roosevelt would describe Woodrow Wilson as “unmanly,” comparing him unfavorably to Washington and Lincoln, who he said did not escape action by hiding “behind clouds of fine words.”
Like his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt spoke twice at Gettysburg. During his first visit in 1934
, his campaign speech would not mention Lincoln until his closing putting him alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Wilson.
More famously, as President, FDR spoke at the Eternal Peace Light dedication
on July 3, 1938, unveiling a monument to “men who wore the blue and men who wore the gray
.” He noted that we turn to the Civil War and Lincoln because “the fundamental conflict which events forced upon his Presidency invite us ever to turn to him for help.
Foreshadowing the future conflict in Europe, Roosevelt told his audience Lincoln’s greatness came from understanding that sometimes “a fight must be fought through to a decision so clear that it is accepted as being beyond recall.”
However, the most surreal and haunting decision surrounding presidential speeches at Gettysburg involved Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Eisenhower.
That year on Memorial Day, Vice President Lyndon Johnson spoke at Gettysburg
, connecting the Civil War to the fight for civil rights. He solemnly said the “heroic deeds
” at Gettysburg should encourage freed men to persevere. He called to the country’s conscience, remarking, “Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.
”Just as the North and South had united, Johnson urged that Americans to listen to “the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here”
to come together to fulfill emancipation as fact rather than just proclamation.
We read Lincoln’s sentiments, we ponder his words – the beauty of the sentiments he expressed enthralls us; the majesty of the words holds us spellbound – but we have not paid to his message its just tribute until we – ourselves – live it. For well he knew that to live for country is a duty, as demanding as is the readiness to die for it.
No matter how eloquently delivered, horrific actions days later overshadowed Eisenhower’s speech in the cemetery on November 19, 1963.
Earlier that year on a March visit to Gettysburg, President Kennedy had declined park service guide Colonel Sheads’ invitation to speak at the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s dedication, replying, “I’d like to, but I can’t. I have to go to Dallas and mend fences.”
With clear parallels to Lincoln’s tragedy, Jacqueline Kennedy requested to consecrate her husband’s gravesite with an eternal flame in Arlington modeled after the Gettysburg monument he visited with his family.