On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his address at the commemoration of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a decisive battle of the American Civil War had been fought months earlier.
On November 24, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union published a editorial that dismissed the President’s remarks as “silly.” The editorial stated:
150 years later, the newspaper — which is still around, now operating under the name Patriot-News — has retracted that scathing judgment about the Gettysburg Address. Speculating that the writer of the earlier editorial may have been under the influence of partisanship or strong drink, the Patriot-News editorial board writes that its prior judgment was “so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.” The newspaper’s correction states: “In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”
The Patriot & Union was not alone in questioning the value of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the days after it was spoken to the world. Its extreme brevity in a day when important speeches often were hours long, and its conceptual approach, which linked the Civil War to the Declaration of Independence, looked forward rather than backward at the great battle, and declined to directly criticize the Confederacy by name, made it stand out as radically different. Lincoln himself is said to have remarked, after the speech was over, that his remarks “won’t scour.”
Lincoln was wrong, of course, and so was the Harrisburg Patriot & Union in dismissing his profound remarks as “silly.” To its credit, the newspaper has finally, a century and a half later, corrected its error. Sometimes it just takes time to recognize what has truly happened and to appreciate its significance. The heated passions and glib remarks of the day often seem silly when viewed with the cool judgment of history.