The popular adage is that newspapers are the first draft of history. Well, yes, but sometimes they get that initial effort a tad wrong and they have to run one of those little boxes on page three to correct a misstatement about who actually attended a city council meeting, who played the tympani at a concert, or who voted to oppose that tax increase in Congress. But sometimes they can really get it wrong. Then they just have to ‘fess up – even if it takes a century and a half to get around to it. That’s why the Harrisburg Patriot News’ retraction of some distinctly sour comments on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address have gotten national attention in recent days. J. BROOKS SPECTOR could not resist.
Late last week, the editorial in that paper that covers the Harrisburg region (Harrisburg is Pennsylvania’s state capital and the small cities and fertile farmlands beyond it) wrote, “Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives”.
Talking about an oops moment!
These words were offered to correct an earlier (150-year-old) judgement by the Harrisburg Patriot & Union (the Patriot News’ predecessor paper), which it had written four days after Lincoln had delivered his remarks at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863 to dedicate the cemetery where the tens of thousands of soldiers who had died in that battle several months earlier were being buried. The paper said then, “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
Of course the Patriot-News managed to undercut a really great story of error and redemption by offering some niggling exculpatory detail that could have helped make their error sound just a bit less egregious. First they noted that the editorial came nearly a week after the speech itself, and their initial reportage of Lincoln’s remarks had been published two days after the cemetery’s dedication. This was the result of the difficulties journalists had in getting from Gettysburg back to Harrisburg. (On the state’s contemporary highways it probably takes less than an hour to do the trip, but back in 1863, in the midst of a war, and given the need to move perhaps 20,000 people from Gettysburg to all directions of the compass after the event, maybe that was a reasonable delay.)
In fact, the paper’s 21 November edition did give major space to President Lincoln’s arrival in Gettysburg and printed the full text of Lincoln’s formal remarks in the paper. Meanwhile, Edward Everett’s two-hour-long oration, the dedication ceremony’s keynote speech, the one no one remembers much any more except for the fact that it was really, really long, was eventually published in two subsequent editions of the broadsheet as well. The editorial that accompanied the first instalment of Everett’s epic was no less deprecating about his remarks. The Patriot and Union commented about them, “It is something that belongs to the history of the times, or we would not publish it.”
However, as part of the paper’s somewhat delayed exegesis of its editorial flub, the editors noted that their paper had also carried “the text of speeches delivered not at the ceremony, but elsewhere in town the night before and the afternoon following. Specifically, the newspaper printed the text of Lincoln’s and Secretary of State William Seward’s impromptu speeches to the crowd in town the night before as well as New York Governor Horatio Seymour’s speech after reviewing New York troops following the dedication ceremony on the 19th. This selection of wire news on Nov. 21 forms the basis for the editorial printed on the 24th. But it’s important to note here that the Patriot & Union also devoted more than half of its local news coverage on the 21st to the Gettysburg ceremony, with a first-person eyewitness account from one of the newspaper’s own reporters….”
As is always the case with reporters covering a complicated presidential trip whenever there is the slightest mix-up, the Patriot and Union harped on the chaos of transportation arrangements. There were mix-ups and delays getting all those thousands of troops and guests from Gettysburg to Hanover (the major rail junction servicing Gettysburg and Harrisburg) – and then on their final destinations across the Union half of the country.
At least in the initial reporting of the Lincoln speech back on 21 November, the paper’s reporter on the scene had dispassionately written, “The President then arose and delivered the dedicatory address, which was brief and calculated to arouse deep feeling.” Given the paper’s ardent Democratic Party sympathies (19th century American papers were resolute in declaring their political sympathies in their editorials as well as in their news columns) and the editors’ enthusiasm for a negotiated peace in the Civil War in which they were termed “Copperheads”, this bit of praise was no small thing. Copperhead was not a term of praise. It appropriated the name of one of the country’s poisonous snakes, usually found in the brambles and swamps of un-drained wetlands, waiting to strike noiselessly. From this distance it is easy to think of the North as politically united, but this was far from the truth back in Lincoln’s time.
There was lots of bad blood between that paper and Lincoln’s government and his Republican Party as well. A year before the cemetery ceremony, four of the paper’s top management had been arrested by soldiers on some fairly murky grounds – but undoubtedly partially in response to the paper’s obvious “Copperhead” tendencies.
The specific charge, according to the Patriot-News’ story the other day was that the newspaper’s print shop had been responsible for publishing a “handbill – a hoax that got posted all around Harrisburg – that announced abolitionist James Lane was in town to recruit local black men for the Union Army. According to a recent article in America’s Civil War by Barrett’s great-great-grandson Doug Stewart, ‘If taken seriously, the handbill might have sparked a race riot.’ The announcement promised ‘Arms, equipments, uniforms, pay, rations, and bounty the same as received by White Soldiers, and no distinction will be made. Black recruitment and black equality were incendiary topics in Pennsylvania – especially the mid-state – in 1862.’ ” This, of course, was still some months before the Union began to recruit African-Americans to serve in the army – and that announcement was not accepted easily by some when it did come.
With all this ill feeling as background, the Patriot and Union, on the 24th, then gave vent to their judgements about Lincoln’s short – and now ageless – address, rolling it into a caustic commentary of the political theatre aspects of the entire dedication ceremony. On this latter point, at least, they were not totally off base. Lincoln had some obvious political motives in showing up to the ceremony, even in a presumed “subsidiary” role. Scholars argue his speech at Gettysburg marked the beginning of his re-election campaign (for the presidential election of 1864, in a country in the midst of a continent-spanning war).
Given the way the war had been going so far, and the political tensions within Lincoln’s own party, it was not even a rock-solid certainty he would gain his party’s re-nomination – let alone his re-election for president. With this as the political background, appearing in Gettysburg with all those heavy-duty politicos from Pennsylvania and Ohio – states with the highest number of delegates to the Republican Party’s nominating convention – seemed like an obvious thing to do for political self-protection. And then, looking towards the general election later in 1864, Pennsylvania itself accounted for almost a quarter of the electoral votes needed to win – sort of like California does now – and it was a must-win state for Lincoln in 1864 even if it had significant Democratic Party strength.
As much as media historians have tried to smudge the way the Patriot and News reported and commented on Lincoln’s speech, even arguing that the paper’s derogatory comments actually referred to some impromptu remarks he had given the night before, the Patriot News editors admitted that their predecessors were clearly referencing the famous three-minute speech, in addition to Lincoln’s perfunctory remarks the night before. As they admit, “The key evidence comes from the opening of the editorial, which states: ‘We have read the oration of Mr. Everett. We have read the little speeches of President Lincoln, as reported for and published in his party press, and we have read the remarks of the Hon. Secretary of State, Wm. H. Seward, all delivered on the occasion of dedicating the National Cemetery…’ ” The use of the words “little speeches” is the key, today’s editors say. Their predecessors back then were clearly commenting on Lincoln’s remarks at the dedication ceremony. And they were also disparaging his political efforts in the context of those political battles to come (as well as that little matter of the editors’ joint arrests the year before) – all without contemplating the sustained rhetorical effect that Lincoln’s speech would have in transforming the nature of the Civil War, the shape of the American political character or international political discourse on the goals of government.
Gary Wills, author of a prize-winning study of the rhetorical content of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, has written of Lincoln’s larger political impact, saying, “Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg worked several revolutions, beginning with one in literary style. Everett’s talk was given at the last point in history when such a performance could be appreciated without reservation. It was made obsolete within a half hour of the time when it was spoken. Lincoln’s remarks anticipated the shift to vernacular rhythms which Mark Twain would complete twenty years later. Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn. It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address …”
The Patriot News’ retraction should stand just as written, even if it has come just a hundred and fifty years late. It can stand as a warning sign for any unwarranted media hubris – as a truly stunning example of how historical judgements may change dramatically from the immediate views of an event, as it is happening. DM
Photo: Abraham Lincoln (Wikimedia Commons)
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