For those acquainted with today’s 24-hour news cycle, debates about the legacy of current presidential administrations are nothing new. Yet there still are many who argue that only the slow passage of time can reveal the historical significance of certain events, speeches or politicians. Let history be the judge, they say.
But for one newsman, E.W. Capron, editor and publisher of the former West Branch Bulletin, who witnessed President Abraham Lincoln deliver his Gettysburg address 150 years ago today, there was no uncertainty about the enduring legacy of that speech, despite Lincoln’s assurance that his own words would be largely forgotten compared to the ineradicable memory of fallen soldiers.
“That speech is as immortal as the fields
and the glories of Gettysburg. I doubt if ever more was said in the same space of the same length of time,” Capron wrote on Nov. 19, 1863, in a correspondence that was published on Nov. 28, 1863, in the West Branch Bulletin, a Williamsport publication that, after a series of acquisitions and mergers, eventually became the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.
No doubt Lincoln’s words alone affected Capron greatly, but other factors were in play that might have influenced his laudatory response to the Gettysburg Address, such as his arduous journey to Gettysburg and a certain, uninspired speech that preceded Lincoln’s famous oration.
In the article, Capron recounts his unpleasant experience on the Gettysburg Railroad, citing “railroad mismanagement, inconvenience, and delay,” for the reasons he and his traveling companions were four-and-a-half hours late for the beginning of the proceedings at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg.
By the time his party arrived, the primary speaker at the event, politician and orator Edward Everett, had already begun his remarks, which, according to Capron, were merely adequate compared to Lincoln’s.
“His (Everett) oration occupied two hours and was in some parts eloquent, and in large part historic,” wrote Capron. “As a production inspired by the great occasion, it disappointed many of those who had formed high expectations. … There was no lack of history, of classic allusion, of fine rhetoric, and of evidence of erudition, but there was a lack of heart-felt inspiration, which, it seemed to all, the occasion should have produced.”
Lincoln’s speech, which is known for its powerful brevity despite his reputation for verbosity, would more than make up for the shortcomings of Everett’s remarks, something Capron didn’t fail to note.
“President Lincoln arose and was greeted with warm applause by the multitude,” Capron wrote. “His speech occupied about six minutes, and it embraced more sentiment and inspiration than Mr. Everett’s two hours.”
Everett’s words paled in comparison to Lincoln’s, a fact that was obvious even to Everett, which is why the following day he wrote Lincoln a letter saying, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
To this day, the Gettysburg Address is one of the most instantly recognizable and influential speeches in American history. That the people of Williamsport in 1863 were aware of its significance, thanks to one newsman who had the nerve and insight to recognize a speech worthy of the past, present and future, is a reassuring thought.