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

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. 

The Patriot and Union was a four-page broadsheet, explains Donald Gilliland, a current reporter at the Patriot-News. And broadsheets, in the 1860s, were in the habit of printing major political speeches, regardless of their deliverers. Two days after Lincoln delivered the Address—on November 21, 1863—the Patriot and Union, as part of its broader coverage of Lincoln's visit to Gettysburg, printed the full text of the address as provided by the AP. The paper did so, Gilliland notes, "without editorial comment."

The Patriot and Union also printed speeches delivered to honor the Gettysburg dedication given by luminaries around the country—including remarks from Secretary of State William Seward, New York governor Horatio Seymour, and the orator Edward Everett. (It did so, it seems, reluctantly. Its introduction to Everett's speech reads like so: "It is something that belongs to the history of the times, or we would not publish it.") 

So that was the "civic duty" part of things. Having done that, the newspaper's reporters and editors did what newspaper and editors of the time were wont to do: editorialize. They saw the Gettysburg dedication for what it was, in part: political theater. Their description of it reflected that perspective. But it also reflected frustration with the transportation technology of the time: There was a problem with the train service that brought many visitors—reporters among them—to Gettysburg for the dedication ceremony. "Newspapers focused on this," Gilliland notes, "because it was a major snafu that left thousands stranded in Hanover unable—after traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles—to attend the event."

As a result, "the newspaper's own news account of the proceedings focuses largely on the lousy train service to and from Gettysburg." It focuses, as well, on the events at the Hanover inn where many of the weary would-travelers waited out their stranding. ("The amount of blasphemy manufactured at that little hotel," the paper put it, understatedly, "was considerable.")

To sum up: You have reporters who are sent to Gettysburg to cover an event they see as empty pageantry starring a president they see as a joke. Oh, and that president is responsible for imprisoning their colleagues for 16 days without due process of law. And then! The train meant to take them to do their work gets stuck in Hanover, which means that they themselves get stuck in Hanover.
In that context, it is entirely understandable that these newspapermen would write the following, frustrated, now-retracted words:

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.