As originally published on http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2013/11/19/5-unanswered-questions-about-the-gettysburg-address/.
5 Unanswered Questions About The Gettysburg Address
You might be surprised to learn that each year, hundreds of people discover that they have a long-lost copy of the Gettysburg Address. At least they think so. Exactly 150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famed speech to commemorate the fallen during the great battle which gives the speech its name. And as we have gotten closer and closer to this anniversary, more and more of these fortunate Americans have called us to sell their newly discovered historical treasure. The Raab Collection had 12 such calls this week alone. “I think it is very unlikely to be an original but send me an image.” That is my stock response.
In our three decades in this business, we have received hundreds of these calls and without exception, all have been copies, the same type you would buy at a museum as a souvenir. Most have grown “old-looking” with age. Someone stumbling across a box with an ancestor’s things might be forgiven for thinking it real. So why not just inform the caller that it’s not real? Because although it is indeed very unlikely, it is technically possible, and therein lies the flicker of hope. The reason is that we do not know for sure exactly how many copies Lincoln made, even if we have our suspicions. Here are five mysteries about this great address that still elude historians 150 years later.
1) Did Lincoln write out any other copies of the speech before he was assassinated?
There are five known copies of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s two secretaries were John Nicolay and John Hay, and he gave them the first two copies he created. These reside at the Library of Congress. They were written around the time of the speech itself. ”The other three copies were all written out to individuals who were requesting them for charitable purposes,” says Lance Heidig, the curator of Cornell University’s exhibition on the Gettysburg Address (a compelling and informative exhibit online or in person). One was created for Edward Everett, the other speaker in Gettysburg that day in 1863. This copy is at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Historian George Bancroft received the fourth copy, and his stepson, Alexander Bliss, received the fifth and final copy. These are at Cornell University and the White House in the Lincoln Bedroom, respectively. The first two are contemporary with the speech. The latter were created well after the speech and donated by the President to auction off and raise funds to benefit the sick and wounded. Could he have written others?
2) Which of the 5 copies did Lincoln read from during the speech?
This is a subject of ongoing speculation. The Keynote Speaker at Gettysburg that day was not Abraham Lincoln but Edward Everett, who gave a two-hour long speech, which he memorized. However, we know from contemporary accounts that Lincoln read from a piece of paper that day, even though his Address lasted just minutes. But which copy did he use? It could have been either of the first two he created. The Library of Congress, which holds both, notes that the Nicolay Copy precedes the Hay Copy and was likely the one Lincoln used. But historians are not unanimous. Heidig notes that many believe the Hay Copy to be the reading copy.
3) When did Lincoln write the Gettysburg Address?
Many of us think of Lincoln hurriedly scrawling the speech on the train to Gettysburg the day of his address. I learned that myself in school. Not true, says Heidig. That account spread in large part thanks to a work of fiction published in 1906, The Perfect Tribute, by Mary Raymond Shipman. This tale has become fact in the minds of many. Let’s look at the drafts themselves. The first page of the “first draft,” or Nicolay Copy, was written in ink presumably in Washington sometime before the day of the speech. Lincoln wrote the second page of that draft in pencil at a later date, perhaps in Gettysburg. But these are are generalities. So how long did it take him to write this speech and where did he write it? We do not know for sure.
4) What exactly did Lincoln say during the speech itself?
Each of the five drafts differs a little from the other. The text we learn in school, that has been memorialized, is actually the final souvenir draft, the Bliss Copy. Robert Todd Lincoln, his son, later explained that this is the final text of the speech in Lincoln’s eyes, even if he finalized it after the fact. Moreover, we know that the speech he gave matches neither of the first two drafts, the only copies he might have used in Gettysburg. In the later Bliss Copy, he added the words “under God” after “this nation.” Though the earlier drafts do not mention this, eye-witnesses report he spoke it as well. The speech he gave may have been different, though perhaps only slightly, from any of the known drafts. But the bottom line is that there is no definitive text of the words he spoke that day.
5) Will another unknown copy of the Address ever surface?
The early drafts of the speech are likely all known. It is possible that an early draft he wrote for the Address might surface but I am not holding my breath. However, did he write out other, later copies for charitable purposes? He did after all sign several copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to be auctioned for the sick and the wounded. Why only five of this speech? And if he wrote them, have they survived? Are they sitting somewhere waiting to be discovered?
This final, enduring, and perhaps unanswerable question is why we return so many calls from people claiming to have the Gettysburg Address. Who knows what the next call will bring?