Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

An Apology from the Wrong Side of History

A Pennsylvania newspaper apologized last week for a 150-year-old editorial panning Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a bunch of  uninspiring, “silly remarks.”

Silly Remarks

It didn’t take the rest of the world that long to recognize Lincoln’s brief oration as a masterpiece, which some call the greatest speech of all time.

Maybe the newspaper reporter covering the dedication of Gettysburg was worn out after listening to headliner Edward Everett talk for two hours before Lincoln rose to give his 3-minute, 272-word speech.

Or maybe the newspaper, like many newspapers since then, was looking for the local angle of a major new amenity being dedicated that could turn into a tourist destination.

The original Patriot & Union no longer exists. But its successor Harrisburg newspaper editors thought enough time had passed to issue a correction. Waiting 150 years, one supposes, is a lot less responsive than putting a correction on Page 2 in the next edition. But then again most corrections aren’t written as tributes to their mistakes.

“Seven score and ten years ago,” the editors began, “the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective that history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”

Noting the obvious and echoing Lincoln’s humble refrain, the editors continued, “The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record, but we must do as conscience demands.”

“In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered November 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognized its momentous importance, timeless eloquence and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

Lincoln's Gettysburg AddressIn fact, newspaper opinion after Lincoln’s short talk was sharply divided. Republicans praised the speech while Democrats pooh-poohed it as inadequate. Perhaps few realized how Lincoln’s words would resonate through history, becoming the most memorized and commemorated speech in the world. But few people then – or now – operate on the same mystic plain as Lincoln.

His famous opening sentence subtly conjoined American aspirations for individual liberty, human equality, continental expansion and preservation of the Union.

His equally famous closing line was one of the most powerful motivational speeches in history – the “great task” to ensure “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

No one could ever say, except perhaps the Patriot & Union editors of his day, that Lincoln failed to think big. At least, after a paltry 150 years, the editors realized they woke up on the wrong side of history.

When Lincoln finished speaking, Americans had a Constitution based on the propositions of liberty and equality. When Lincoln finished, we no longer said, “The United States are a free country;” we said, “The United States is a free country.” Hardly silly and incredibly inspiring. Lincoln remade America in three memorable minutes.


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