Checking Out D.c.'s Copy Of Lincoln's Wisest Address (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Checking Out D.C.'s Copy Of Lincoln's Wisest Address

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:03
We'll head over to Capitol Hill for our next story to the great hall of the Library of Congress. That's where you can find a piece of paper with 273 handwritten words, words we know now as the Gettysburg Address.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:28
You may have already heard that this week marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's famous speech, recited in the clip you just heard by former President Jimmy Carter. But for those who need it, a historical refresher -- Lincoln was there Gettysburg, Penn. to dedicate a cemetery for those who had died in the Battle of Gettysburg just four months earlier. The main speaker that day was not Lincoln, but a renowned orator named Edward Everett.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:54
He spoke for two hours, outlining precisely what had happened during the battle. Then, Lincoln rose to the podium to make his speech.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:01:15
The version of the address that's on display at the Library of Congress is known as the Nicolay Copy. It's named for Lincoln's secretary, John Nicolay, who donated the paper to the Library in 1916. "Metro Connection's" Emily Berman met up with Civil War manuscript expert, Michelle Krowl, to find out more about what this speech -- and this copy of it -- so notable.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:01:39
Was this the actual paper that Lincoln was reading from on the day he delivered the Address at Gettysburg?

MS. MICHELLE KROWL

00:01:45
Well, we think it's the most likely copy to be the reading copy. We'll never know with 100 percent certainty. His secretary, John Nicolay, said yes, this is the copy. Based on the documents that we have now, and the copies of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in his own handwriting, this is the most likely version because you can see that he started writing it in Washington. The first page is on Executive Mansion stationary and it's written in pen. And then we think that when he got to Gettysburg he decided to change the ending. So then he had a piece of foolscap paper -- which is more like legal-sized paper today -- and wrote that new ending out in pencil.

MS. MICHELLE KROWL

00:02:22
But the two pages are united because at the bottom of the Nicolay copy on the first page you can see a few words are crossed out in pencil and the new words have been written in that unite those two pieces of paper. When you see the document in person, you can see fold marks. The fold marks correspond on both pieces of paper. So you can imagine Lincoln taking those two pieces of paper, folding them up, putting them in his pocket and going off to the cemetery dedication.

BERMAN

00:02:48
Okay. So the Gettysburg Address is one of the most or these most famous speech in American history and also recognized as a literary masterpiece. What makes it so notable?

KROWL

00:02:58
It's very lyrical. It's very poetic. When you look at his words, they're not long, they're not complicated, they're not things that an ordinary person would have trouble understanding.

BERMAN

00:03:09
Can you give an example from the actual text?

KROWL

00:03:11
Well, I mean, it's almost everything in the text. "Of the people, by the people, for the people." That's something that people will understand. "A new birth of freedom." When you look at Edward Everett's speech, there's a lot of classical allusions to ancient Greece. And many people might not catch those same allusions. But with Lincoln, he always had a tendency to write in a way or speak in a way that ordinary people would not have trouble understanding.

BERMAN

00:03:38
One myth that you hear about the Gettysburg Address Lincoln may have jotted it down on the back of an envelope, you know, mainly because it's so short. Is that true?

KROWL

00:03:48
It is absolutely not true that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. Lincoln was not one to give extemporaneous speeches. So he liked to plan things out. He liked to think about his addresses and have something written. But just the train aspect of it, if you've ever tried to write anything on a moving Metro train, you know that you can't have perfect handwriting. If you look at the Nicolay copy of the Gettysburg Address, the handwriting is perfect.

BERMAN

00:04:14
What was the reaction at the time, across the country?

KROWL

00:04:17
The reaction was very mixed. It wasn't uniformly everyone recognized the beauty of the speech. Some thought it was terrific, some didn't. Some ignored it. So there wasn't really a united response the way that we would think of now because it's such an iconic document. Edward Everett, who was the main speaker of the day, the headliner, if you will, of the Gettysburg Address, he wrote Lincoln the next day and said something to the affect of, I would flatter myself if I had come as near to the central idea of the event in two hours as you came in two minutes.

BERMAN

00:04:50
So how did this speech influence future political speeches?

BERMAN

00:04:54
Well, I think Lincoln was a very hard act to follow, and that politicians still hearken back to some of Lincoln's words. They may not take his standard of being short and speaking very plainly to the common people, but still having a lyrical approach. But I think Lincoln is still -- it's still a gold standard for politicians today, in terms of being able to say words that maybe not at the time are uniting people, but have that test of time.

WILSON

00:05:22
That was Michelle Krowl, a Civil War and Reconstruction expert at the Library of Congress, speaking with WAMU's Emily Berman. You can see this original copy of the Address through early January. It's being show, along with several historical artifacts that have never been on public display, including the Library of Congress checkout register, opened to Lincoln's page. So you can see exactly which books he borrowed during his presidency. We've got more details on the exhibit on our website, metroconnection.org.

WILSON

00:05:56
After the break, the wisdom of gardeners. We'll hear about a project that's recording the stories of folks who spend time digging in the dirt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:06:03
Urban agriculture has become kind of a hot topic, like a buzzword. And I was interested to see what was going on before it became a hip thing to do again in 2000.

WILSON

00:06:16
It's coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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