“The Gettysburg Address:” Praised and Shunned

photo of girl with the word "equality" written on her knuckles

Original Reception

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address received mixed reviews at the time it was given. Specifically, reviews were divided mainly along political party lines: this Discourse community consisted of Republicans with positive reactions and Democrats with negative reactions. Regardless of political leaning, however, the speech was popular.

The Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper called the address “silly, flat and dishwatery,” and essentially wrote it was shameful to have Lincoln as president. Democrats viewed the speech as irrelevant because it re-framed the meaning of the Civil War: it was no longer just about the Union or the U.S. economy, but about human rights. There was also the idea of the “true” American, and the argument that the Constitution did not prohibit slavery. So the Gettysburg Address’ (and the Declaration of Independence’s) claim that “all men are created equal” was not applicable to the “true,” white slave-owner American’s life. 

The Rebublican news source, The New York Times countered this claim, saying it was a “perfect gem,” and agreeing with the push for equality. 

Modern Reception

The Gettysburg Address is now widely accepted as one of the most influential speeches in American history and is also now highly regarded in its message.

In 2013, the democratic news source, The Patriot-News even retracted negative statements it had said upon the speech’s release

I imagine that, if you asked anyone, they would not only know about the Gettysburg Address, but would likely agree with the message that the U.S. has a foundation in human equality. We’ve made a number of great strides in the U.S. in order to uphold that message: abolishing slavery and later fighting against segregation, giving women the right to vote, legalizing gay marriage, etc. While fantastic, I think this gives the illusion to some that things are entirely equal now. That the message of human equality is upheld in both our laws and in social practice. But it’s clear we’ve only just scratched the surface: see gender pay gaps, racial profiling, etc. Bigotry hasn’t stopped existing. Hate groups haven’t disappeared. 

I think a larger majority would consciously receive the Gettysburg Address positively today. However, there would still be those who disagree. For example, Trump’s response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was that they had “very fine people on both sides.” One side is a group of white nationalists and white supremacists, which makes one wonder, “what does it mean to be a ‘fine person’?” if they are a member of that group. Trump defends his stance by saying if someone looked at the group protesting the statue’s removal, some were calm protesters who had a permit and some were white nationalists. But being a calm protester or one with a permit doesn’t make someone inherently “fine” or not a Nazi/white nationalist/white supremacist. So it seems Trump doesn’t really condemn white nationalists and supremacists at all.

So the three main reactions to the Gettysburg Address today would be: those who fully agree and see the need to continue efforts toward equality, those who fully agree but think we have reached equality, and those who hold bigoted beliefs and either outwardly disagree with the speech because of this or hide those beliefs in the form of “jokes” or claim that they agree with “both sides” (regardless if one side is very obviously bigoted). Also, the Chicago Times would be “cancelled” on Twitter. 

Conclusion

The speech today is just as, if not more significant than it was when it was first given. This speech is a historical document which is now used to exemplify the reasons for the Civil War. More specifically, it shows Lincoln’s emphasis that the war was over slavery and aboloshing it. But it can also be used as a means to show the progress we’ve made toward equality, even though we have a long way to go. 

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