As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, the main speech for the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov 19, 1863 was delivered by Edward Everett, an academic and a politician who had a reputation for being a great orator.
It was hardly Everett’s fault that his two hour long speech, filled will flowery, 19th Century style rhetorical flourishes, numerous references to the classics, and meticulous detail about the battle that had made the environs of Gettysburg hallowed ground, had been overshadowed by President Lincoln two minute speech. Everett himself recognized this when he wrote to the president the following day and stated, “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.”
An example of Everett’s speaking style can be seen in the first few words of his speech.
“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.”
Compare that to the first few words of Lincoln’s speech.
“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.”
Everett’s speech was filled with imagery, whereas Lincoln’s was eloquent in its plain simplicity and its brevity. The last part is likely much of the reason that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is remembered to this day and Everett’s is all but forgotten. Generations of rhetoric students have easily been able to memorize and recite Lincoln’s less than 300 words, delivered in two minutes. It would take a prodigious memory indeed to be able to recite from memory Everett’s almost 14,000 words delivered in the space of two hours. The attention spans of modern audiences would be taxed as well.