On November 19th, 1863, hundreds huddled together on a field still fresh with the smell of overturned dirt. Around them, a sea of gravestones lined the dying grass. Historians estimate that on that day, Gettysburg Pennsylvania was the largest city between Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
Never had the sleepy town seen such a group of important people. Politicians, professors, and dignitaries all flocked together to remember the bloody battle that occurred four months earlier, and to listen to the most famous orator of that day: Edward Everett.
Edward Everett was a former senator, preacher, professor, Secretary of State, and president of Harvard. His student, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called his public speaking ability “the most mellow and beautiful and correct of all instruments of the time." Everett was a superstar of his age, and thousands gathered to hear him whenever he spoke.
As a formality, President Abraham Lincoln was also asked to make an appearance and offer “a few appropriate remarks” following Everett’s keynote address. This clear stiff came as no surprise. Lincoln’s popularity was at an all-time low. The conflict had lasted over two years and Americans were weary of war. His prospects of re-election were slim.
It would be tempting for Lincoln to use a memorial service such as this to bolster his political popularity. As all politicians knew, eulogies were public relation goldmines. But as Abraham Lincoln unfolded his speech and looked at the crowd, he didn’t focus on the future. He focused on the past.