Newspaper Corrects 1863 Editorial Calling the Gettyburg Address 'Silly'

Nearly 150 years after it panned Lincoln's seminal speech, the Patriot-News is changing its tune. This is how the editorial came to be in the first place.
A copy of The Harrisburg Patriot and Union, November 24, 1863 (AP/Matt Zenecy via Pennlive.com)

Next week—November 19, to be precise—will mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address. 

The speech, of course, would go on to enter the canon, get memorized by generations of schoolchildren, and be held as an example of the powers of brevity to rhetoricians. It would be credited, partially, with ending both slavery and the Civil War. At the time, however, it was just another speech: a specimen not only of masterful speechwriting, but also of political expediency. As a result, back in 1863, not everyone was enthused about the speech. Some were actively un-enthused. 

One of those someones was the Patriot and Union newspaper, based in Harrisburg,  Pennsylvania, 40 miles away from Gettysburg. Four days after Lincoln delivered his speech, the editorial board of the paper reprinted the oration for its readers. It introduced the reprint with this

We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.

This week—150 years later, after the paper has come in for a mix of mockery and disbelief at having positioned itself so squarely on the wrong side of history—the the Patriot-News, the 2013 version of the Patriot and Union, is retracting that editorial"The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record," the paper notes—"but we must do as conscience demands."

It adds: "The Patriot-News regrets the error." 

But how did that infamous editorial come to be in the first place? How could people charged with writing the first rough draft of history get that draft so ridiculously wrong?

Part of its was good, old-fashioned partisan rancor: Papers back then were openly—institutionally—partisan. Pens were sharp and bitter. And the Patriot and Union was a Democratic publication. So.

Part of it, however, was also personal: In 1862, the year before Lincoln delivered his Address, four members of the Patriot and Union's highest-ranking staff were arrested on suspicion of sedition and imprisoned for 16 days without a hearing. The reason? The paper's print shop had printed a handbill announcing that the Union general and abolitionist James Lane would be in town to recruit local black men for the Union Army. The handbill, the paper insisted, was a prank—and, either way, printing something is not the same as creating it. But that recruitment was, of course, an incendiary topic at the time ... so much so that the handbill "might have sparked a race riot." Hence, imprisonment for the newspapermen. The person who gave the orders for all this? Henry Halleck (better and more delightfully known as "Old Brains"), who was the general-in-chief for one, yes, Abraham Lincoln. 

But there was another reason for the dismissive editorial, too—a reason that had as much to do with the journalistic convention of the time as it did with politics. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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