Several months after President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address, renowned historian George Bancroft attended a reception at the White House. There, he asked Lincoln for a hand-written copy of the address, and that manuscript is now the highlight of Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. It is one of five known copies of the Gettysburg address written and signed by Lincoln himself.
Cornell’s Gettysburg address is the only known privately owned copy. The Library of Congress has two, the Illinois State Historical Library has one and the Lincoln Room at the White House has one.
“We have 70 million manuscripts here, and this is one of the most important,” said Susette Newberry, coordinator of public programs. “It has sort of talismanic properties … People just want to come here and hold the frame that it’s in. For people who can actually come and see it here, it has tremendous material qualities.”
Visitors to Kroch Library often request to see the Gettysburg address, which is protected within a frame. They can also see the letter Lincoln enclosed when he mailed the copy to Bancroft, which is dated Feb. 29, 1864.
Lincoln delivered the 272-word Gettysburg address on Nov. 19, 1963 on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pa., where Union and Confederate soldiers fought one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. His hope that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” was intended not only to honor the 51,000 soldiers that the Battle of Gettysburg left dead, wounded or missing, but also to inspire a bitterly divided country.
Despite the near canonical status of the Gettysburg address today, however, Lincoln received just as much censure as he did praise for his speech. Cornell Library owns an original copy of The New York Times’ article on the address which ran the following day. The article carries a transcript of the speech with numerous brackets indicating applause.
“That’s [the indication of applause] one of the things that interests me about the Times’ article,” said David Corson, special projects librarian. “I remember being taught in school that Lincoln was very disappointed in the audience’s reaction. The article made it seem as though it was really well-received.”
Corson noted the high degree of partisanship in media coverage during the Civil War era.
Cornell’s Gettysburg address website contains several negative reactions by Lincoln’s contemporaries.
On Nov. 20, 1863, the Chicago Times wrote, “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances.”
The power of Lincoln’s words today, however, is indisputable.
“We’ve had people absolutely weep upon seeing it,” Newberry said. “The Gettysburg address is something every child learns about, and it’s such a dear part of our collective ethos.”
Newberry added that high school students, who frequently come to see the address, tend to get the most excited about it.
“They really love it; many times they’re studying it,” she said.
That, she says, is what really makes it relevant to them.
According to University Archivist Elaine Engst, Cornell was one of the first universities to document the anti-slavery movement. The Cornell Library also has an enormous Civil War collection, including copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which were signed but not written by Lincoln. Andrew Dickson White contributed many materials to the collection, especially in the form of ephemera — everyday items like concert tickets, dinner menus, and posters.
In 1945 the library acquired another unique item: the pocket diary of Union soldier Erasmus Basset of nearby Yates County. A sergeant in the 126th New York State volunteer regiment, Basset kept a record of the Civil War’s progress. His record continued to July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Beneath his last entry, which begins “Start towards Gettysburg at 4 a.m.,” is a note from his half-brother: “Twelve o’clock at night I find my brother, Erasmus Bassett, lying dead where I took this from his pocket — R.A. Basset.”
Cornell’s copy of the original newspaper article on Basset’s death noted that Basset “died as true heroes and the country’s martyrs die” — in a manner, as Lincoln alluded to in his Gettysburg address four months later, that should inspire America to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Archived article by Maya Rao
Sun Staff Writer