President Abraham Lincoln delivered his revered Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Notably, he was not the keynote speaker scheduled that day.
Preceding Lincoln’s address, renowned orator Edward Everett — an academic, politician, and diplomat — spoke eloquently for two hours. Lincoln delivered his 272-word address in two to three minutes, focusing on universal ideas of human equality, devotion, and sacrifice — nothing explicitly mentioning the Civil War. Afterward, an admiring Everett told Lincoln, “I should be glad that 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.”
Contrary to popular legend, historians concur that Lincoln did not hurriedly write his address on the back of an envelope while riding the train from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg. Drafts were written on White House stationery in neat, even script, unlike what a person riding a bumpy train would have fashioned. Lincoln penned five copies of his address (with slight variations). They reside at the Library of Congress (2), Illinois State Historical Library, Cornell University, and the White House.
It was good that Lincoln’s speech was brief. Turns out he may have had smallpox when he delivered it. He had been experiencing high fever, headaches, backaches, and scarlet blisters on his skin. Lincoln took three weeks to recover upon his return to the White House.
Not everyone was a fan of Lincoln’s address. The Patriot & Union newspaper of Harrisburg, Pa., dismissed it as nothing more than “silly remarks.” However, 150 years later, it (now the Patriot-News) issued a retraction of its original review, citing the influence of partisanship at the time … and “possibly strong drink.”