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

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The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
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The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

November 19 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Here's a quick historical refresher: Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Penn. to give "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of a military cemetery for those who had died in the Battle of Gettysburg, fought in July of 1863.

The main speaker that day was not Lincoln, but a renowned orator named Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours, outlining precisely what had happened during the battle. Then, Lincoln rose to the podium, to make his speech. Those handwritten 273 words are known as the Nicolay Copy, for Lincoln's secretary John Nicolay who donated the paper to the library in 1916, and it's now in a tightly sealed, argon encasement in the Library of Congress.

To find out more about what makes this speech — and this copy of it — so notable, Metro Connection's Emily Berman met up with Civil War manuscript expert Michelle Krowl.

On whether the Nicolay copy was the actual paper Lincoln read from while delivering the Gettysburg Address:

Michelle Krowl: "We think it's the most likely copy. [Lincoln's] secretary John Nicolay said 'Yes, this is the copy' — so we can't say with 100 percent certainty, but based on the copies we have now in his own handwriting, this is the most likely version. We think when he got to Gettysburg, he decided to change the ending, and wrote that new ending out in pencil. When you see the document in person... 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."

On what makes the Gettysburg Address so notable:

"It's very lyrical, poetic. The language is beautiful. Lincoln wrote for how people were going to hear it, and so he's writing in a way common people can understand. When you look at Edward Everett's speech, there are a lot of allusions to ancient Greece. Many people might not catch those allusions. With Lincoln, he had a way of speaking that ordinary people would not have trouble understanding, so he can reach a very wide audience."

On the rumor that Lincoln may have jotted the Gettysburg Address down on the back of any envelope because it's so short:

"It is absolutely not true that Lincoln wrote it on the back on an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. Lincoln was not one to write extemporaneous speeches, and the train aspect... if you try to write on a moving train, you know you can't have perfect handwriting. If you look at the Nicolay copy of the Gettysburg Address, the handwriting is perfect."

On what the reaction in the country was at the time:

"The reaction was very mixed... It wasn't uniform — some thought it wasn't worthy of a president, some thought it was terrific... some ignored it. Edward Everett was the headliner, and he wrote Lincoln the next day and said 'I would flatter myself if I would come as close to the central idea of the event in two hours as you did in two minutes."

The original copy of the Gettysburg Address, along with along with several historical artifacts, are on display at the Library of Congress.

[Music: "Abe Lincoln" by the Boring Normals from When I Grow Down]

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