Lincoln and Criticism

Tom Kelton

Criticism is often a gift from someone who knows what you have done wrong and is kind enough to tell you about it. When this is the case the critic is your best friend. At other times critics are wrong and the latest critic is not necessarily the truest prophet. Such was the case with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

When Abraham Lincoln delivered a five-minute speech dedicating a soldier's cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, his talk drew little attention from the journalists of his day, except those who criticized it as being unworthy of the solemn occasion. The major New York paper noted the President's speech, but did not discuss it. It had praise, however, for the dedication prayer and the operation of the principal speaker of the occasion, Edward Everett. Another New York paper merely reported that a few remarks were delivered by the President, and gave the short speech without comment. A Philadelphia paper gave more attention to the fact that there were a number of dead horses lying about the battlefield than they did to Lincoln's speech.

Some papers criticized the speech bitterly. A Chicago paper called it an insult to the memory of the men who had died on the battlefield. A Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, paper said: "We pass over the silly remarks of the President." The American correspondent for the London times wrote: "Any-thing more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce." Only a few writers had kind words for Lincoln's speech. Perhaps the most significant thing said about it was by a writer in Harper's Weekly, who did not sign his name. He wrote: "The few words spoken by the President of the United States were from the heart to the heart." In spite of all this criticism, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is today hailed as one of the greatest speeches ever given.

Lincoln had a philosophy toward criticism that carried him through the dark, troubled days that he faced during his life. "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep on doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me won't matter. If the end brings me out wrong, then ten an-gels swearing I was right would make no difference."

When we are troubled with criticism that we think is unjust we could profit from thinking about these events in the life of Lincoln.

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 15, p. 25
August 1, 1996