Exactly 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln recited the Gettysburg Address on the famous civil war battlefield. It was a commemoration of the tens of thousands of dead, wounded, or missing men from the bloody battle there, and it became an iconic devotion to a much deeper sentiment. Today, to mark the anniversary, Twitter is arguing about why President Obama didn't say the words "under God" in his videotaped recitation of the speech. God bless America.
Obama was one of many participating in a new Ken Burns project aimed at getting as many Americans as possible to record their versions of the speech. There are recitations from a disparate group of famous people: Louis C.K., Robin Roberts, Rachael Maddow, and Bill O'Reilly, for instance. Stephen Colbert does it in character as Stephen Colbert impersonating Lincoln. Former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter gave their versions. And then there's the president's:
You'll notice that Obama does not say "under God" in the line "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." This prompted reactions after WRAL spotted the "omission:"
Also, worth noting that Ted Cruz correctly recited the words "nation under God" which President Obama did not http://t.co/2S7PMOBqCk— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) November 19, 2013
obama does it again, obama deliberately OMITS the words "UNDER GOD" from THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS [he was recording for ken burns documetary]— Du Crusoe (@DuCrusoe) November 19, 2013
Did @KenBurns remove "under God" from Obama's cue cards?— John Nolte (@NolteNC) November 19, 2013
Way to leave out "Under God" in your speech Obama, ya prick— Tyler Hampton (@T_Hamppp) November 19, 2013
However, it's categorically not accurate to say that Obama removed or left out the words from his recitation. That's because there are five different copies of the Gettysburg Address penned by Lincoln himself. Three of them, versions of the speech provided by Lincoln to various fundraisers after he delivered the speech, include the phrase "under God." Those are the Everett Copy, the Bancroft Copy, and the Bliss copy. The two manuscripts believed to be written down in preparation for the speech itself omit it. Obama was reading from one of those two earlier versions, the Nicolay Copy, better known as the "first draft." The project's website now clarifies that Obama read the Nicolay copy at the request of filmmaker Ken Burns, in part because of the speech's historical significance. Its one of two manuscripts of the speech held by the Library of Congress. Here it is:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.
It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The remaining version that omits "under God" is the Hay Copy, which the Gettysburg Foundation pegs as probably the closest in phrasing to what Lincoln actually said. It was either written down just before or just after the speech itself. Many of the Burns project's participants, however, read from the Bliss copy, which is undoubtedly the most popular of the five. That copy is in the Lincoln Bedroom. The Bliss version reads:
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
No one really knows what the exact version of Lincoln's brief speech was that day. Plus, Lincoln intentionally revised and refined the speech after its actual delivery for future use. But there is some evidence that he added the words "under God" into the finale on the fly: as the AP notes, three newswires of the speech included it in their versions. That's enough for many experts to posit that Lincoln said those words, and added them to the record later.
But the consensus of civil war historians is not prompting the conservative controversy here. The controversy comes from the idea that Obama, a Christian, is somehow allergic to publicly mentioning God. It was a problem, for instance, for Fox News's Todd Starnes when the president did not explicitly mention God in an address honoring Thanksgiving in 2011. Despite this, the White House has staked out an official position supporting the mention of "God" in the public square. In an official response to a petition, the administration noted that the president supported keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Some conservatives have even used the so-called omission as an opportunity to psychoanalyze the president. Breitbart.com published a piece called "Why Obama Fears the Gettysburg Address." Joel Pollak writes there:
He has coveted the aura of Lincoln's charisma, but has never humbled himself to learn from Lincoln's example the way Ronald Reagan humbled himself before "The Boys of Pointe du Hoc." For Obama to speak at Gettysburg, to stand where Lincoln had once stood, would only sharpen the contrast.
Far from an issue of omission, the fake controversy now dominating the anniversary of the important speech is more or less about conservative perceptions of the president's arrogance. Even though comparing oneself to Lincoln, paraphrasing his words, imbuing new meaning to the Gettysburg Address itself is a routine practice for politicians from every party, there's a certain special fury summoned when Obama does it. If anything, Ken Burns's project demonstrates that no matter what critics might feel, everyone deserves to access, personify and celebrate the meaning of the speech. No matter which version it may be.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.