Every orator who speaks at Gettysburg lives in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s 272 word address. Those brave enough to mount the podium on Dedication Day, or during any other of the numerous occasions for speechifying that the battlefield presents, usually begin their effort by begrudgingly acknowledging the impossibility of supplanting Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks.” Words less ambitious and prose less soaring spare the speaker from any unflattering comparison with Lincoln.
Throughout the past century and half, the challenge of following Lincoln has been confronted by a number of illustrious and not-so-illustrious American Presidents. Each has offered unique remarks that are illustrative of the man and the time in which it was spoken. While most fall short of the high bar set by Lincoln, they comprise an interesting chapter in the history of Gettysburg, as well as the presidency. Today we begin a new series, penned by Ranger John Nicholas, that will examine the “other Gettysburg Addresses.”
Every year, thousands, perhaps a million visitors walk through the Taneytown Road gates of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Almost always, the first question visitors ask as soon as they walk through the gates is: Where was Abraham Lincoln? It’s a fair question; the Gettysburg Address is one of the most well-known and well-loved speeches in any language in world history. Who wouldn’t want to know where those words were first spoken by the man who spoke them? The first structure a visitor sees as they come through the gates is the Speakers’ Rostrum. They will think, “That has to be the spot where Lincoln stood!” I often see people, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups (often school kids) climb the rostrum to stand where they believe President Lincoln spoke his immortal words. They sometimes recite the Gettysburg Address with as much dignity and solemnity as they can muster and try to imagine what it would have been like to stand there on November 19th, 1863. The rostrum is a great place to give a speech and every November 19th speeches will be made from there; but President Lincoln wasn’t there.
Abraham Lincoln never spoke from the rostrum. He couldn’t have; it wasn’t constructed until 1879, fourteen years after his death. But while Lincoln didn’t speak from the rostrum, there have been six other presidents who did speak from that spot: Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. One future president, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, also spoke from the rostrum. Six of the seven presidents spoke on Memorial Day, then observed on May 30th. The event known today as Dedication Day, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address on November 19th, did not become a tradition until 1938.
It takes a great deal of self-confidence to be the President of the United States, but I’m sure any successor to the 16th President would be intimidated to have to follow Abraham Lincoln and his words on the very ground where he spoke them. He’s a hard act to follow. What could they say that would add but not detract from what Lincoln spoke on Cemetery Hill on November 19, 1863?
I’ve often said that Lincoln’s words are about the past, the present, and the future. What path would these succeeding presidents follow? What would these presidents say about the past, their present, and the future? Would they merely reflect on Lincoln and Gettysburg in 1863 or would they try to get past the Address quickly so as not to invite comparison? Would they apply Lincoln’s words to their own times and the trials and the world in which they lived? Would their words provide inspiration for the future?
Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president after Lincoln to speak in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Hayes spoke from a wooden platform constructed on the same spot where the current rostrum is located. (As mentioned earlier the current rostrum was not built until 1879.) Hayes was a Civil War veteran, (though he was not at the Battle of Gettysburg). He was also the president who ordered the removal federal troops from the former Confederate states, which effectively ended Reconstruction, so I had hoped that he would provide a veteran’s insight on the war and its aftermath. It was not to be.
Hayes said nothing about his own experience or events that had happened during or after the war or the war’s effect on Americans. He did remind his listeners that Lincoln and those who responded to his call to suppress the rebellion, “gave their lives for the Union, liberty, and for a stable, constitutional government.” Hayes hoped that contemplating the National Cemetery and the landscape of the battlefield would allow Americans to better appreciate their country and its institutions and help them be better prepared for the duties which had been bequeathed to them by the soldiers buried in the cemetery.
Hayes followed Lincoln’s example in the brevity of his remarks. His entire speech is a single paragraph, nine sentences long. If the Associated Press reporter’s short- hand transcription of the words of Lincoln’s speech is accurate, then Lincoln spoke a total of 269 words on November 19, 1863. On May 30, 1878, President Hayes spoke only 253 words, but the last 44 words are the last sentence from Lincoln’s address. Only 209 words belong to President Hayes.
The assassination of President William McKinley ended the life of the last Civil War veteran to be elected to the Oval Office. The vice-president who succeeded him as president, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke from the rostrum in 1904.
A new century with a new, vital, young president, Roosevelt was forty-three years old when he spoke at Gettysburg. The United States had emerged as a player on the world stage, millions of immigrants were flocking to its shores, the economy was booming, and the nation was bursting with energy. In the years after the Civil War, Pragmatism, a distinctly American philosophy, had been conceptualized by Charles S. Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. Roosevelt, with his emphasis on practical idealism and living “a strenuous life”, was the very embodiment of that philosophy.
Roosevelt ascribed those same ideals to the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg:
“The Civil War was a great war of righteousness; a war waged for the noblest ideals, but waged also in thoroughgoing, practical fashion. That is why you won then because you had the ideals, because you had the lift of soul in you, and because also you had the right stuff in you to make those ideals count in actual life. You had to have the ideals, but if you had not been able to march and shoot you could not put them into practice… this victorious war of ours meant the triumph of both liberty and order, the triumph of orderly liberty, the bestowal of civil rights upon the freed slaves, and at the same time the stern insistence on the supremacy of the national law throughout the length and breadth of the land.”
Roosevelt reminded his listeners that the soldiers who won at Gettysburg and the soldiers who fought to the end of the war “made their countrymen forever their debtors, (and) have left us far more even than the memories of the war itself… (And) the lessons they taught us are lessons as applicable in our everyday lives now as in rare times of great stress.”
Roosevelt goes on to tell us what those lessons were:
“The men who went into the army had to submit to discipline, had to submit to restraint through the government of the leaders they had chosen, as the price of winning. So we, the people, can preserve our liberty and our greatness in time of peace only by ourselves exercising the virtues of honesty, of self-restraint, and of fair dealing between man and man.”
Some in the audience that day would learn first-hand the lessons the President spoke of at Gettysburg. Americans were already involved in a guerrilla war in the Philippines. In 1906, U.S. Marines would be deployed to Cuba. The following year, “the Great White Fleet”, a newly expanded and modernized United States Navy would begin a world tour to demonstrate America’s growing military power. In 1916, the U.S. Army would be chasing Poncho Villa in Mexico. By that point, World War I had already begun in Europe. Four million Americans would serve in “The War to End All Wars”. Some of those Americans would be buried in Gettysburg National Cemetery.
It was the “Roaring Twenties”. The Great War was over, and unlike in Europe, it had left few scars on the United States. But while the war did not touch U.S. soil, Americans would experience new challenges and once again make a break from the past. More and more citizens were leaving the farms for towns and cities. Railroads and automobiles were allowing Americans to move north, south, east, and west.
Change always produces some turmoil, and newspapers were filled with stories of the Teapot Dome Scandal, the Red Scare, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and widespread lynching in the South. Beginning in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan, which had almost disappeared after 1872, was resurrected and by 1924 had 2 million members. Gangsters like John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, and Al Capone made front page news.
In 1920, women won the right to vote and began to have a great effect on the economy as businesses began to direct their advertising towards those most responsible for household purchases. The first “teenagers” were coined to designate them as a group distinct from children and adults. For better or worse, the radio, phonograph, and motion pictures were creating a distinctly American popular culture. The automobile was providing young people with greater mobility and a way for them to date out of their parents’ eyesight. Women were wearing “flapper” dresses and shorter hairstyles and
swooning to Rudolph Valentino and Douglass Fairbanks. Young couples were listening to jazz, (critics claimed the music was satanic and led to sex crimes), dancing the Charleston, and, (despite Prohibition), drinking bootleg whiskey and bathtub gin. It was all very shocking to older generations of Americans.
Calvin Coolidge was the president. Today Coolidge is remembered as a man of few words. That was not true on Memorial Day, 1928 when he spoke from the rostrum. At 3,115 words, Coolidge’s remarks were the longest presidential address given in the National Cemetery, (at least so far).
Coolidge noted that Gettysburg is “one of the great historic battle grounds on this continent. In the magnitude of its importance it compares with the Plains of Abraham, with Saratoga, and with Yorktown… (and is associated with) one of the greatest addresses ever delivered by one of the greatest men ever in the world, Abraham Lincoln.” Coolidge mentioned that U.S. Treasury had thus far paid out between six and seven billion dollars in Civil War pensions and at the time of Coolidge’s remarks was still paying out $200,000,000 annually to veterans, widows, and orphans and another $560 million to veterans of the World War.
After briefly acknowledging both wars and war veterans, the President quickly pivoted away from this topic and gave what was essentially a State of the Union Address. Although he said the United States would not entirely retreat from the world back into isolationism, it’s clear that Coolidge wanted to return to the days before the Great War and all of its upheavals. He promised that the U.S. would keep its Army and Navy small to show our neighbors that we were no threat to peace. Coolidge stated that America’s world-wide interests were in maintaining that peace and he spent the majority of his speech expounding on those hopes, and what the U.S. and other nations needed to do to keep and maintain it.
The most interesting part of the President’s speech was focused on the issue of crime. Coolidge believed that the reasons for the increase in crime was due to a loosening of moral standards in American society. “If the people are careless and indifferent, if they look with complacency on crime and assume a sentimental attitude towards criminals, little reform can be hoped for…good government can only be secured by eternal vigilance…” While Prohibition didn’t ban the manufacture and consumption of alcohol, (merely its sale and importation), laws were widely flaunted and organized crime was thriving as a result of it.
In some places the law was barely enforced, while several states and many counties went beyond the limits of the 18th Amendment and banned alcohol completely. Towards the end of his remarks Coolidge stated that it was his opinion that legislatures, (he implied state legislatures but he could also have been speaking of Congress here), were exceeding their constitutional authority. He said “such action is a larceny of power.”
Coolidge’s speech was dull and uninspiring. Overall, despite America’s crime problem, he painted a picture of happy, peaceful, and contented Americans with a prosperous industry, agriculture, commerce, and good credit, not realizing that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression was just around the corner.
Gettysburg National Military Park
 Rutherford B. Hayes: “Memorial Day Speech, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania May 30, 1878,” Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center (online). http://www.rbhayes.org/hayes/content/files/RBHSpeeches/presidentialspeeches326.htm
 Johnson, Martin P., Writing the Gettysburg Address. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press. 2013 pp. 201-209
 Theodore Roosevelt: “Memorial Day Speech, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania May 30, 1904,” The Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt (online) Complete Speeches.
 The Southern Poverty Law Center. “The Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence” 6th edition Montgomery, AL 2011 www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/Ku-Klux-Klan-A-History-of-Racism.pdf