Douglas L. Wilson and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. On October 22nd Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson delved into the address during his visit with the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia (LGDC). Wilson is the co-Director of Knox College Lincoln Studies Center located in Galesburg, Illinois, site of one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was a great event. Even CSPAN was there.

Douglas L. Wilson

While we are all familiar with the Gettysburg Address – most of us probably had to memorize the “Four score and seven years ago” speech in high school – most people don’t know that there are five versions written in Lincoln’s hand. And they aren’t all the same. Remember that there were no photocopying machines in 1863 so Lincoln actually had to write out each copy with pen and ink. [Read more about the various copies here]

One major difference that Douglas talked about is a sentence that was in the Nicolay version – believed to be the earliest draft – and all of the other versions. The Nicolay version includes the following line:

“This we may, in all propriety do.”

Hmmm, not very inspiring, is it. Luckily for posterity Lincoln removed the sentence and replaced it with the more familiar:

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Much better.

Some have argued that the Nicolay copy is the version that Lincoln read from when delivering the address on November 19, 1863. Wilson notes that this is unlikely because of the above and a few other changes. The Hay version more closely tracks the two supposedly verbatim transcriptions of the address taken by reporters at the time of the speech. The other copies were made at the request of Edward Everett (the actual keynote speaker at Gettysburg), George Bancroft, and Col. Alexander Bliss. There are only minor differences in these copies. The Bliss copy currently resides in the White House while the Nicolay and Hay copies are at the Library of Congress.

loc gettysburg address

Wilson offered many other insights into the Gettysburg Address and took many questions from the Lincoln Group attendees. Prior to dinner Wilson signed three of his books that I had brought from my collection. One of his books, edited along with Rodney O. Davis (his co-Director at the Lincoln Studies Center), is Herndon’s Lincoln, an updated and annotated version of the book William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, had published in 1889). I have a first edition of Herndon’s three-volume set, but Wilson and Davis’ annotated version is much more valuable as a research tool. Often I’ll read a story that Herndon’s informants had told him about Lincoln’s past, only to find out in the notes that the story may not actually be supported by fact. It is this kind of scholarly work that makes study of Abraham Lincoln so fruitful, even after the 15,000 volumes on the man that are estimated to exist.

Herndon's Lincoln signed

I highly recommend Douglas L. Wilson‘s other books as well, Herndon’s Informants, Honor’s Voice, and Lincoln’s Sword. Thanks to Wilson and the LGDC, I not only have more insight into the Gettysburg Address, I have three new signatures in books on my shelves.

The full Douglas L. Wilson presentation at the Lincoln Group of DC is now available on C-SPAN.

David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity. You can order a signed copy directly from me, download the ebook at barnesandnoble.com, and find hard copies exclusively at Barnes and Noble bookstores.

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One thought on “Douglas L. Wilson and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

  1. Pingback: Herndon’s Lincoln by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik (Edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis) | Science Traveler

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