President Obama Edits Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Yes, President Barack Obama deserves some criticism for not attending celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. You can’t spend as much time as this president has over the years identifying with Lincoln without having to deal with questions about why you refuse to attend the sesquicentennial of the most important speech in American history. One of the more absurd arguments (not surprisingly) comes from a FOX News interview with a Wall Street Journal columnist, who actually argues that given the president’s popularity right now it was probably the right decision not to attend. Participation would have just added coal to the fire.

It would be interesting to have poll numbers for Lincoln’s popularity in November 1863. If we follow this argument to it logical conclusion, it is likely that Lincoln himself should have stayed away from Gettysburg altogether. Can you imagine a president so unpopular and still have the nerve to show up at a battlefield in the middle of a civil war to dedicate a new cemetery?

Even more curious, however, is the criticism coming mainly (again, not surprisingly) from conservative news media and bloggers that the president left out the phrase “under God” in his reading of the Gettysburg Address for a project produced by Ken Burns. How many times during his presidency has Obama referenced “under God” in one of his speeches, but somehow in this specific case he decided to intentionally edit a speech of 272 words that many Americans have memorized. One of my students even passed on this news yesterday in class. “Mr. Levin, why would the president do that?”

At first I thought she was kidding. I asked for the source and inquired as to whether anything had been mentioned about the fact that there are different versions of the speech. Later in the afternoon I decided to follow up and noticed that the story had gone viral.  Of course, what these news outlets and bloggers missed entirely was that Ken Burns asked the president to read the first draft or “Nicolay version” of the speech, which does not include the phrase, “under God.” In fact, it’s not even clear that Lincoln uttered those words at Gettysburg. Perhaps these people should be inquiring as to why Lincoln left the phrase out of his first draft.

Ultimately, such an accusation fits perfectly into the, “He’s Not One of Us” argument.

Here is a wonderful interactive exhibit that explores the different versions of the address. Yesterday the White House released the president’s handwritten reflections about the Gettysburg Address. Finally, for those of you looking for a good book that explores how the Gettysburg Address has been interpreted, commemorated, and remembered over the years I highly recommend Jared Peatman’s new book, The Long Shadow of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

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13 comments… add one
  • Brad Nov 20, 2013 @ 11:23

    I didn’t have a huge issue with his not going to Gettysburg as he has other things on his mind. I’ll bet Lincoln’s poll numbers wouldn’t have been terrible considering the successes at Gettysburg and Vicksburg five months earlier. Here Obama is dealing with a much more immediate story regarding the Affordable Health Act (Obamacare).

    I thought the Scalia thing was a bit odd but I thought having a Lincoln impersonator read the Gettysburg Address was even odder.

  • Pat Young Nov 20, 2013 @ 4:59

    Justice Scalia administered the oath of allegiance yesterday at Gettysburg for new citizens. It was singularly odd:

    “Before I administer the oath, I want to say a few words of welcome to the new citizens. What makes us Americans, what unites us, is quite different from that which unites other countries.

    There’s a word, ‘unAmerican.’ We used to have a House unAmerican Activities Committee. There’s no equivalent word in foreign languages. It would mean nothing in French political discourse to refer to something as unFrench, or in German political discourse to refer to something as unGerman. It is only Americans, we Americans, who identify ourselves not by our blood or by our color, or by our race or by where we were born, but rather by our fidelity to certain political principles.

    That’s very strange. It’s unique in human history, I believe.”

    I have been to many citizenship ceremonies, and a standard part of the ceremony is to assure the immigrants that being American is not a matter of blood, but of loyalty to the Constitution. I have never heard a reference to the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee or to the notion that some people living here as citizens may be UnAmerican.

    I hear people constantly throw around the unAmerican charge and I wonder what it could mean. Since we never revoke a person’s citizenship if it was properly obtained through birth or naturalization, the views people hold, and even their bad actions, are American actions. Back 70 years ago Justice Murphy wrote that an immigrant abolitionist in the 1850s could have been considered to hold unAmerican views since the laws protected that property. Murphy argued that Americans can hold extremely diverse views and still be American.

    • Pat Young Nov 20, 2013 @ 6:17

      In SCHNEIDERMAN v. UNITED STATES Justice Murphy wrote for the majority of the Supreme Court on the notion of “Americaness” in a denaturalization case saying that:

      “The constitutional fathers, fresh from a revolution, did not forge a political strait-jacket for the generations to come. 15 Instead they wrote Article V and the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of thought, soon followed. Article V contains procedural provisions for constitutional change by amendment without any present limitation whatsoever except that no State may be deprived of equal representation in the Senate without its consent. Cf. National Prohibition Cases (State of Rhode I land v. Palmer), 253 U.S. 350 , 40 S.Ct. 486, 588. This provision and the many important and far-reaching changes made in the Constitution since 1787 refute the idea that attachment to any particular provision or provisions is essential, or that one who advocates radical changes is necessarily not attached to the Constitution. [320 U.S. 118, 138] United States v. Rovin, D.C., 12 F.2d 942, 944, 945.16 As Justice Holmes said, ‘Surely it cannot show lack of attachment to the principles of the Constitution that (one) thinks that it can be improved.’ United States v. Schwimmer, supra ( 279 U.S. 644 , 49 S.Ct. 451) (dissent). Criticism of, and the sincerity of desires to improve the Constitution should not be judged by conformity to prevailing thought because, ‘if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.’ Id. See, also, [320 U.S. 118, 139] Chief Justice Hughes dissenting in United States v. Macintosh, supra, 283 U.S. at page 635, 51 S.Ct. at page 579….

      It is true that the Fifth Amendment protects private property, even against taking for public use without compensation. But throughout our history many sincere people whose attachment to the general constitutional scheme cannot be doubted have, for various and even divergent reasons, urged differing degrees of governmental ownership and control of natural resources, basic means of production, and banks and the media of exchange, either with or without compensation. And something once regarded as a species of private property was abolished without compensating the owners when the institution of slavery was forbidden. 21 Can it be said that the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and the supporters of the Thirteenth Amendment were not attached to the Constitution? We conclude that lack of attachment to the Constitution is not shown on the basis of [320 U.S. 118, 142] the changes which petitioner testified he desired in the Constitution. “

  • Stephen Nov 20, 2013 @ 4:41

    It seems odd that you discard the plausible hypothesis that both Burns and the presidential entourage were fully aware of the implications of selecting the Nicolay version and chose it with conscious intent to provoke–Burns to provoke thoughtful examination of the artifacts, the president’s team to rhetorically advance a humanist agenda.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2013 @ 5:23

      I will leave you to your hypothesis. Thanks for the comment.

      • Stephen Nov 20, 2013 @ 22:27

        At least you were politely dismissive, as if to say, “If you like your views, you can keep your views. Period.” Seriously though, I greatly appreciate your range of knowledge and depth of insight. Keep up the excellent work.

    • Total Nov 20, 2013 @ 5:48

      “rhetorically advance a humanist agenda”

      What does that even mean? “If I don’t mention God in the Gettysburg address, I will subtly convince hundreds of Americans to become atheists! Bwwwaahaaa!” (whisper whisper) “MILLIONS! Millions of Americans!”

      • Pat Young Nov 20, 2013 @ 6:35

        Of course part of the plan hatched up by Obama and Ken Hussein Burns was that they would lure conservatives into denouncing the Obama clip because otherwise no one would know that the central phrase in the Gettysburg Address had been omitted.

  • Pat Young Nov 20, 2013 @ 4:35

    That damned speech needed some editing.

  • Barbara Gannon Nov 20, 2013 @ 4:12

    I highly recommend a new book “Writing the Gettysburg Address.” The author’s executes a careful examination of the various versions of the address. He thinks “under God” was spontaneously added as he spoke. It shows up in later versions, not drafts. I do love this controversy, it demonstrates why he did not go. Whatever he would have done would have been wrong and he would have been attacked for it.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2013 @ 4:26

      Thanks for the reference, Barbara. You are right that it’s a no-win situation, which is why he should have gone. 🙂

      • Rob in CT Nov 21, 2013 @ 6:10

        Agree. If you can’t win, do the best thing. Why do the second-best thing and lose anyway? It’s become a thing for Democrats. Always in the fetal crouch, trying to ward off attacks that will come no matter what they do. Sigh.

    • CMcWhirter Nov 20, 2013 @ 6:28

      It was a no-win situation for Lincoln too, but he went anyway. Just as the Chicago Times or the Gettysburg Patriot & Union.

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