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Why Trump repeated an old myth about the Gettysburg Address

The speech was received favorably in its day, but the president has his reasons for getting that wrong.

President Trump speaks at a rally in Billings, Mont., on Sept. 6. (Susan Walsh/AP)

At a rally in Billings, Mont., on Thursday night, President Trump — in the type of disjointed monologue that has become his signature — compared himself to the Republican Party’s first president, Abraham Lincoln. Alluding to the November 1863 Gettysburg Address (“many of us know it by memory,” Trump declared, though he made it no further than “Four score and seven years ago”), the president asked his audience: “You know when Abraham Lincoln made the Gettysburg Address speech, the great speech. Do you know he was ridiculed? ... And he was excoriated by the fake news ... they said it was a terrible, terrible speech.”

In positing this peculiar historical interpretation, Trump is suggesting that his own critics will fade into insignificance, and that his true greatness — or, perhaps, his eloquence — will be recognized by posterity. While drawing a parallel between the accomplishments of Lincoln and himself (rhetorical or otherwise) is an eyebrow-raising move, it’s of a piece with Trump’s high opinion of himself, as well as his habit of positioning opponents as “haters” and “losers” who will ultimately stand on the wrong side of history. What better way to illustrate how wrong the haters are than describing their counterparts of 150 years ago, who also failed to recognize greatness in their midst?

From the president’s perspective, it’s an irresistible comparison. However, as has often been the case when Trump ventures into U.S. history, he relies on a myth that has no basis in the historical record. The Gettysburg Address was an unconventional speech, but its power and lasting significance were recognized immediately by most sectors of the American public, political class and media.

In Lincoln’s era, political oratory was a popular spectator sport; politicians who deployed wit, historical and literary allusions, and humor to supplement their erudition were the rock stars of the day. Titans like senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster packed congressional galleries and attracted throngs of spectators when delivering addresses. In fact, it was a Webster protege, former Massachusetts senator Edward Everett, who was the main speaker for the November 1863 ceremony dedicating the new military cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield.

Five things Donald Trump could learn from Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln himself, despite his gangly appearance and idiosyncratic gestures, was widely regarded as an excellent speaker — maybe not on Everett’s level, but certainly no slouch. When he accepted the invitation to deliver a brief dedication at the new cemetery, as biographer Michael Burlingame notes, Lincoln saw an opportunity to cement the principles for which the Union was fighting (including the “new birth of freedom” brought by the Emancipation Proclamation) firmly within the American historical tradition of universal liberty he believed stretched from the Declaration of Independence to his own day.

The speeches at Gettysburg were a study in contrasts. Everett went first. His two-hour oration had all the ingredients that went into a “great speech” as 19th-century Americans defined it. In stentorian tones, he alluded to such events as the Battle of Marathon and the Wars of the Roses to place the Union dead at Gettysburg into the noble historical tradition of those who defended the right, even against long odds and in civil wars. Lincoln’s speech, on the other hand, was a pithy, concise rendering of the principles for which the Union fought. Everett relied upon rhetorical flourish, Lincoln on verbal economy. Aware that he was speaking also to the larger public, which would likely encounter his words in newspaper accounts, Lincoln’s brevity proved eminently successful.

In a mere 10 sentences, delivered in under five minutes, Lincoln provided what was immediately hailed as an eloquent and meaningful summation of the Union’s very purpose. Everett himself recognized the address’s power; he wrote Lincoln the next day, saying, “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.” George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, dubbed it the “most perfect piece of American eloquence, and as noble and pathetic and appropriate as the oration of Pericles over the Peloponnesian dead.” (He meant “pathetic” in the more affirmative archaic sense, suggesting that it elicited strong emotions.) The editor of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin declared that the “President’s brief speech is most happily expressed. It is warm, earnest, unaffected, and touching.”

What if Abraham Lincoln had lived?

It’s easy to find numerous examples, like the above, of effusive praise for the Gettysburg Address that came immediately in its wake. So why does the myth that the speech was a failure persist? One answer lies in the unorthodox nature of the speech itself; in an era that prized hours-long orations stuffed to the gills with allusions and flourishes, the Gettysburg Address ran counter to nearly every principle of political speechmaking. But as Lincoln’s entire career testifies, an unconventional approach could be effective if employed both strategically and authentically.

Much of the failure myth, however, relies on selectively appropriated evidence from a few opposition newspapers. Some northern Democratic sheets, like the prominent Chicago Times and the New York World, criticized Lincoln for making a short, “silly” speech that overtly politicized a solemn occasion. Others saw the speech as an effort to surreptitiously add “Negro equality” to Union war aims. The Keene, N.H., Cheshire Republican complained “[i]f it was to establish negro equality that our soldiers lost their lives, Mr. Lincoln should have said so before.” (This was a questionable insinuation, as the Emancipation Proclamation was promulgated 11 months earlier.)

As it became clear just how popular the speech was becoming, though, most opposition editors quietly abandoned their criticism. It didn’t take long for the Northern public’s consensus on the Gettysburg Address to resemble the reaction of the Union army captain who had lost an arm in the Battle of Gettysburg and returned there in November to attend the dedication. Moved to tears by Lincoln’s speech, according to a bystander’s account, he “shook with no unmanly emotion … and in a low and solemn tone exclaimed ‘God Almighty bless Abraham Lincoln!’”

However unlikely it may be that Trump is familiar with the documentation of the day, it’s tempting to speculate that critiques of the speech resonate with him, since they were grounded in hostility to Lincoln’s emancipation policies. But a more likely explanation for Trump’s eagerness to deploy this particular myth is that it fits his own narrative of unrecognized, even maligned, “greatness” that posterity will judge more favorably than the present-day “haters” do. Perhaps the president sees his own rhetoric as a modern expression of Lincoln’s unorthodox style and wants to believe that he too represents a Lincoln-esque blend of eloquence and economy.

But adopting an easily disproven trope to burnish those credentials is a questionable strategy at best. Certainly, a 19th-century audience would have been mystified at Trump’s rhetorical habits: His own discourses have all the length of an Everett speech without the erudition or coherence. They also exhibit a willingness to dive into personal grudges that marked a politician for undying scorn, as Andrew Johnson learned the hard way in 1866. And, of course, they exhibit a meandering style, ill-suited to hold viewers’ attention for the length of time necessary for a “proper” oration. Perhaps a 19th-century listener would even have agreed with the Philadelphia Daily Age’s assessment of Edward Everett’s speech that November day: “Seldom has a man talked so long and said so little.”