Edward Everett was a minister, university professor and politician. So it’s a safe guess that he liked the sound of his own voice. But a lot of others did, too, which made him a natural choice to lead the ceremonies when the Gettysburg battlefield cemetery was dedicated.
Everett, born in Dorchester, Mass. in 1794, had earned the reputation as the nation’s leading orator by 1863, when the battlefield cemetery was dedicated just months after the battle.
Today, Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent two-minute speech at that dedication ceremony is immortalized: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”
In 1863, as the Civil War still raged, it was Everett who set the stage for Lincoln.
“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”
He got over that hesitation quickly and for two-hours led his audience on an emotional recollection of the Battle of Gettysburg. Everett had spent weeks preparing. He interviewed soldiers, reviewed General Lee’s account of the fight, every detail was correct. The audience was in tears.
Everett, a prolific scholar, also desperately wanted the speech to prepare the nation to come together. Everett had been an opponent of Lincoln when the president was first elected. Everett placed preservation of the union ahead of other concerns.
But with the nation engaged in war, he became a Lincoln supporter – often speaking out to defend critics of the president.
In his speech at Gettysburg, Everett wanted to create a picture of post-war unification for the public. He called upon Greek and European history and America’s own revolution to illustrate how nations could reconcile even after fierce wars.
“The people of the South are not going to wage an eternal war, for the wretched pretexts by which this rebellion is sought to be justified. The bonds that unite us as one People, — a substantial community of origin, language, belief, and law, (the four great ties that hold the societies of men together); common national and political interests; a common history; a common pride in a glorious ancestry; a common interest in this great heritage of blessings; the very geographical features of the country; the mighty rivers that cross the lines of climate and thus facilitate the interchange of natural and industrial products, while the wonder-working arm of the engineer has leveled the mountain-walls which separate the East and West, compelling your own Alleghenies, my Maryland and Pennsylvania friends, to open wide their everlasting doors to the chariot-wheels of traffic and travel —these bonds of union are of perennial force and energy, while the causes of alienation are imaginary, factitious, and transient.”
Today, Everett’s speech is often compared unfavorably to Lincoln’s. But the speech was widely praised. Lincoln was still a political figure and was even criticized for his brevity in some quarters. Everett’s lengthy table-setting effort to inspire hope was almost universally lauded.
Everett realized the brilliance of Lincoln’s short speech. He wrote to the president: "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."
The Gettysburg oration was Everett’s swan song. He had inherited the reputation as the nation’s most eloquent speaker from Daniel Webster, and the Gettysburg speech was his final masterpiece.
Of course, Everett had not always been so eloquent. As a pastor, his congregations had enjoyed his lively and florid presentation, but Everett decided he favored academia and politics.
He served as governor of Massachusetts, as well as a congressman for ten years. His tongue got him in considerable trouble as a young man when he led a three-hour speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, in which he referred to New Testament references to slavery. It seemed to put him in the pro-slavery camp.
In reality, Everett opposed slavery – but not at the price of war or a break in the union. After a short stint in the Senate of just 15 months, he resigned in 1854 because he was not aggressive enough in his opposition to slavery to suit a constituency that had grown disgusted by it.
In the twilight of his career, Everett turned much of his attention to promoting the reputation of George Washington. He gave more than 100 speeches recalling Washington’s life, with proceeds going to the purchase and restoration of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.
Little more than a year after his Gettysburg speech, Everett gave a speech to raise money for the poor in Georgia who were left destitute by the war. He caught cold and died.