From Abraham Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower, Gettysburg has long been associated with the American presidency. Since 1863 numerous sitting presidents have journeyed to Gettysburg, and following in Lincoln’s footsteps, have offered speeches and orations that are a reflection of how different generations, and presidents, have remembered and reflected the American Civil War. This is part two of a three part series focusing on presidential speeches and orations at Gettysburg. Part I covered Rutherford Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.
After Calvin Coolidge’s dull speech of Memorial Day 1928, President Herbert Hoover would give a truly great oration filled with wonderful metaphors, imagery, and eloquence. The Great Depression had already begun, (though its worst years had not hit the U.S. yet), when Herbert Hoover spoke from the rostrum in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Hoover’s address would not just be heard by listeners and reporters in the cemetery, but was broadcast over national radio networks. The entire nation has the opportunity to listen along as the President and Gettysburg community observed Memorial Day in 1930.
Hoover pointed out that “most of those who bore the burdens of the Civil War have joined their comrades who sleep beneath the mounds” in national cemeteries. “The time must come all too soon when these living ties of our generation with the historic past will have passed on. Then we shall have only cherished memories to remind us of those men who heroically died and those women who bravely suffered for great ideals, or who lived on to consummate the reunion of our country, to give stability to its Government, and peace to its people.”
“Every American’s thought of this great battlefield of Gettysburg flashes with the instant vision of the lonely figure of Lincoln, whose immortal words dominate this scene. No monument has been or can be erected here so noble as that simple enduring address which has become part of this place. Greater than the tribute of granite or bronze remains that memorable message to the American people. That appeal for the unity of our people and the perpetuation of the fundamentals of democracy is as vital today in our national thinking as it was when Lincoln spoke. Behind him were 70 years of national experience that had passed between himself and Washington. His words from their span of the past rang with courage and assurance for the future. Though no President has been so beset, though no time in our history has been so dark, though never have strong men been so affected with doubts, yet in the midst of all that turmoil he found the strength to lift his head above the clouds and proclaim that vision which passing years have so fully confirmed.”
Hoover would go on to say that while Americans were facing a new day with new, very ominous problems that seemed to have no solutions, they could take comfort in following Lincoln’s example of courage and faith.
“In the weaving of our destiny, the pattern may change, yet the woof and warp
of our weaving must be inspired by those inspired ideals of unity, of ordered liberty, of equality of opportunity, of popular government, and of peace to which this Nation was dedicated…The weaving of freedom is and always will be a struggle of law against lawlessness, of individual liberty against domination, of unity against sectionalism, of truth against demagoguery, of peace against fear and conflict. In the forming of this pattern, the abuse of politics often muddies the stream of constructive thought and dams back the flow of well-considered action.”
“In the solution of the problem of our times we have some new lamps to guide us. The light of science has revealed to us a new understanding of forces and a myriad of instruments of physical ease and comfort to add to the joy of life. The growth of communications, of education, of the press, have made possible a new unity of thought and purpose. But the light that guides our souls remains the same as that whereby our fathers were led. It is the store of knowledge, the great inspirations of men’s souls, the ideals which they carry forward, that have lifted the Nation to ever greater heights.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Roosevelt spoke twice at Gettysburg. The more well-known visit was in 1938 for the 75th anniversary observance of the battle, the last reunion of the veterans of the Blue and Gray. That reunion also played host to the dedication of the Eternal Peace Light Memorial on Oak Hill. Forgotten today is his visit four years earlier in 1934 and his Memorial Day speech in the National Cemetery.
Hitler had become chancellor of Germany a year earlier; Japan was already in Manchuria; and Mussolini would attack Ethiopia the following year, but Americans were in the worst years of the Depression and overseas problems were not yet on Roosevelt’s mind.
FDR’s 1934 speech focused on reconciliation not just between north and south, but of the entire American people as the nation attempted to dig its way out of the Depression. He almost ignored Gettysburg and the battle there, as if he was trying to distance himself from Lincoln, though he would ultimately circle back in the last sentence of his remarks.
In his closing remarks Roosevelt linked the Gettysburg battlefield to Valley Forge, Valley Forge to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and finally Philadelphia to George Washington’s inauguration and
presidency. He told his audience that Washington recognized “the strength of local and State and sectional prejudices and how strong they might grow to be, and how they might take from the national Government some of the loyalty the citizens owed to it”. Washington toured the different parts of the new country in 1789-91 in order to help foster a sense of sense of national unity. He had hoped that national highways and canals would be “aids not to sectional, but to national development.” When the country was within “driving distance” (Roosevelt’s words) of the thirteen states that had been possible, but as the nation expanded, the transportation and communications of the day could not keep up.
Following up on his theme of continental transportation and communications, Roosevelt had a very different, and novel reason for the cause of the Civil War. He told his audience that when the railroads came, they were developed for local and sectional use. With the nation’s boundaries extending sea-to-sea, the country had become several “self-contained territories” with limited ties and connections to each other. “People were not thinking in terms of national transportation or national communication…The tragedy of the Nation was that the people did not know one another because they had not the necessary means of visiting one another.”
Mindful that there were Civil War veterans in the audience, Roosevelt linked them with the current generation, “Since those days, two subsequent wars, both with foreign Nations, have measurably allayed and softened the ancient passions. It has been left to us of this generation to see the healing made permanent.”
With the Depression dominating American life in the 1930s, Roosevelt proclaimed a new reconciliation, not of the North and South, but of the farm and the city. He told his listeners:
“We are all brothers now, brothers in a new understanding. The grain farmer of the West and in the fertile fields of Pennsylvania do not set themselves up for preference if we seek at the same time cotton farmers of the South; nor do the tobacco growers complain of discrimination if, at the same time, we help the cattle men of the plains and mountains.”
“In our planning to lift industry to normal prosperity, the farmer upholds our efforts. And as we seek to give the farmers of the United States a long-sought equality, the city worker understands and helps. All of us, among all States, share in whatever good comes to the average man. We know that we all have a stake–a partnership in this Government of this, our country.”
“Today we have the means of knowing each other—means that have at last sounded the doom of sectionalism…”
“Here at Gettysburg, here in the presence of the spirits of those who fell on this ground, we
give renewed that the passions of war are moldering in the tombs of Time and the purposes of the peace are flowing today in the hearts of a united people.”
John Nicholas, Gettysburg National Military Park
 Herbert Hoover: “Memorial Day Address at Gettysburg Battlefield.” May 30, 1930. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=22214