By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
“Four score and seven years ago.” With this creative phrasing of the age of the United States, Abraham Lincoln began the two-minute process of upstaging the featured speaker at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg. Many who are interested in the Civil War know Edward Everett only as the featured speaker who was upstaged by Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address. However, by the time of the Civil War, Everett had lived a very accomplished life. Although it was Everett’s well-deserved reputation as an orator that led to him being chosen as the featured speaker, he had many other accomplishments as a statesman and educator.
Everett was born in 1794 in Massachusetts into a family that could trace its roots to early colonial times. He was admitted to Harvard College in 1807 at the age of 13. He graduated four years later as the valedictorian of his class. With diploma in hand, Everett was unsure what career to pursue, and he was encouraged by his pastor to follow in his deceased father’s footsteps and become a minister. After two years of study, Everett became a minister and was made pastor of his congregation. Although Everett was a popular preacher, he grew disenchanted with the constraints that the ministry put on his talents, and after a year he left his position and went to Washington where he met and interacted with several prominent statesmen from his home state, including Daniel Webster. In 1814 at age 20, Everett was appointed professor of Greek studies at Harvard, where he was highly regarded as an educator.
During his time at Harvard, two major events happened to Everett. First, he married Charlotte Gray Brooks in 1822. This gave Everett a connection to Northeast Ohio, because Chardon, Ohio is named after Everett’s father-in-law, who donated land for the city. Second, Everett began to give public speeches on various intellectual topics. One speech brought him wide acclaim, not only for the speech, but also because the Marquis de Lafayette was in attendance, and this focused much attention on what was an excellent speech. Shortly thereafter, Everett was nominated as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, and he easily won election to that office in 1824.
After serving five terms in the House of Representatives, Everett left office and was elected governor of Massachusetts a year later. He served four terms as governor, each term being one year at that time, and he won re-election easily each time. Everett lost his bid for a fifth term in what is the closest gubernatorial election in U.S. history. One of the issues that played into Everett’s defeat was the passage of a temperance law that reduced support for Everett’s Whig Party, which controlled the Massachusetts legislature. According to the official results, Everett’s opponent, Democrat Marcus Morton, received 50.001% of the votes. In spite of numerous voting irregularities, Everett did not challenge the results.
During the next several years, Everett served as ambassador to Great Britain and president of Harvard, and then, upon the death of his friend Daniel Webster, Everett was appointed secretary of state by Millard Fillmore to replace Webster. After Fillmore left office, Everett was elected senator from Massachusetts, but he served only one year due to health and resigned in 1854. Everett spent the remaining seven years prior to the Civil War giving speeches across the country, some in support of different causes. For Everett, public speaking was the most satisfying part of his diverse career. One cause that he supported was the preservation of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and he raised about $90,000 for this effort. He was also a staunch supporter of the Union. Edward Everett’s skill as an orator is best summarized in a quote by a historian who said, “In native terms (he) made articulate…everything that America held precious.”
With this background, Everett was the obvious choice to be the featured speaker at Gettysburg, and the dedication of the cemetery was rescheduled for almost a month later to accommodate Everett’s typically extensive, intense, and lengthy preparation. On the day of the dedication, Everett went early to the speakers’ platform to prepare himself in the tent that he had requested be placed nearby. He needed this time in part because of kidney problems, and he had to relieve himself immediately before and after the ceremony. Everett always memorized his speeches, no matter their length. When he mounted the platform, the voluminous text of his speech was on a table in front of him, but he made sure that everyone noticed that he did not look at it.
From our perspective, Everett’s two-hour oration seems like a ponderous ordeal for the audience. But for November 1863, Everett’s speech was precisely what was desired. Because of the short address that came after it, we have the impression that Everett’s speech was not well received, but the opposite is true. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote in his diary about Everett’s speech, “For two hours, he held the assembled multitude in rapt attention with his eloquent description and argument, his polished diction, his carefully studied and practised delivery.” After the Gettysburg speech Everett continued to give vocal support for the Union cause, and in the election of 1864 Everett was a Republican elector from Massachusetts. In early January 1865, Everett gave a speech in Boston and took ill. He did not live to see the end of the war whose dead he eloquently memorialized as the featured speaker at Gettysburg.
What we know as the Gettysburg Address ended with the words “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” and those are certainly inspiring words. The conclusion of Edward Everett’s featured speech at Gettysburg contained these inspiring words. “Let me again, as we part, invoke your benediction on these honored graves…God bless the Union; it is dearer to us for the blood of brave men which has been shed in its defenses. The spots on which they stood and fell, Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery, Culp, and Wolf Hill, Round Top, Little Round Top, humble names, henceforward dear and famous. No lapse of time, no distance of space, shall cause you to be forgotten. ‘The whole earth,’ said Pericles, as he stood over the remains of his fellow citizens, who had fallen in the first year of the Peloponnesian war, ‘the whole earth is the sepulcher of illustrious men.’ All time, he might have added, is the millennium of their glory…As we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates The Battles of Gettysburg.”