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Speaker discusses oddities of the Gettysburg Address

Posted on 12.11.2013

Brian Dirck, professor of history at Anderson University and Lincoln scholar, spoke at the University of Indianapolis Dec. 4 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address by then President Abraham Lincoln.
Although Dirck’s lecture was originally scheduled for the exact date of the address, Nov. 19, he had to reschedule due to a family emergency. This lecture was the last of the history department’s new series for this semester, but the department plans to continue the series next semester with three more lectures.
During the lecture, Dirck discussed the “three ways this speech was weird.” His first point was that the Gettysburg Address was weird because Lincoln himself gave the speech.
“Now to you and I, growing up with the modern presidency, that seems rather strange. Presidents do this all the time. Probably, every other day President Obama, or Clinton before him, did this … but that is a modern understanding of the presidency. It was unusual for an American president in Lincoln’s time to give a public speech,” Dirck said.
According to Dirck, Lincoln was invited to the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery as a formality. The true keynote speaker was Edward Everett, then president of Harvard University.
“The fact is, they probably didn’t think he [Lincoln] was going to accept, because presidents just didn’t do that,” he said.
Dirck’s second point was the risk that Lincoln took in giving the speech.
“The way the myth is written … Lincoln understands that this is an opportune moment to tell America what it [the Civil War] was all about,” Dirck said.
Dirck reminded the audience that presidents are just as liable to make fools of themselves as anyone else, referencing the story of Lincoln touring the battlefield at Antietam, which is considered the bloodiest day in American history.
“It could have been argued that Lincoln was responsible for their deaths. He gave the order to send them in. So he became very depressed,” Dirck said.
According to Dirck, an old friend who had accompanied Lincoln on the tour began singing at that point to cheer up the president. The partisan press of the time caught word of the singing and told the readers that Lincoln sang “bawdy barroom ditties” and even that the president “danced a jig upon the dead.”
“What if Abraham Lincoln had gone to Gettysburg that day … and done something dumb?” Dirck asked. “… Lincoln took a great risk in even going to Gettysburg.”
Dirck’s final point was that the speech itself was considered an oddity by the standards of the time.
Everett’s speech, given before Lincoln’s, lasted for two hours. Dirck read the opening paragraph, then stopped to comment on how boring the speech was.
“Are you asleep yet? The first time I read it, I was putting forks in my eyes,” he said.
Lincoln’s speech, on the other hand, lasted only two minutes. According to Dirck, Everett later wrote to Lincoln saying that his shorter speech was the better of the two.
Sophomore exercise science major Ellen Thomas said that she thought Dirck’s lecture was interesting and well-received by those in attendance.
“I feel like he’d be a good teacher to have. He was very excited and entertaining,”  Thomas said.
Freshman education major Chelsea Yeadon said that she had an interest in becoming a history teacher, so she really enjoyed the lecture.
“He had a really good voice,” she said. “I learned a lot more about Lincoln than I did before.”


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