A Long History of ‘Political’ Gettysburg Keynote Addresses

goodwinDoris Kearns Goodwin’s (author of Team of Rivals) gave the Keynote Address (scroll to the 19:00 minute mark to watch her speech) Monday at Gettysburg’s 150th Commemoration and she has received a lot of criticism. Read here, here and here. The most prevalent criticism (and there is a lot) directed her way is that she connected the men who fought and died at Gettysburg to the recent Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriages. Kearns Goodwin stated, “each of these soldiers sent forth ripples of hope” for that type of court ruling to occur.

But she is not without her supporters. Here is an article that defends Kearns Goodwin’s Speech. The author writes, “Lincoln’s enemies accused him of politicizing Gettysburg then, just as the opponents of equality for gays and lesbians accuse Goodwin now. Then, as now, the nation struggles to live up to Lincoln’s transcendent challenge.”  Although I have issues with Kearns Goodwin’s speech and this author’s sweeping generalizations, this debate led me to ask, is Kearns Goodwin alone in her “politicizing” Gettysburg?  Were the 50th and 100th keynote addresses as controversial as the 150th? What did their speakers discuss? What does this say about our era compared to theirs?

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wilson at gburg

President Wilson tips his hat at Gettysburg, 1913.

President Woodrow Wilson gave the address at the 50th Commemoration in 1913. Wilson stated:

“What have they [last fifty years] meant. They have meant peace and union and vigor, and the maturity and might of a great nation. How wholesome and healing the peace has been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades, in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past. The quarrel forgetten…” 

Some Gettysburg veterans in the audience did not respond favorably as one stated, “It’s a good speech but ought to have been made at some other place, but not at Gettysburg.” If Wilson’s speech was too political for these soldiers, what would they think of Kearns Goodwin’s? What did African Americans in 1913 think of WIlson’s speech when they were living under the cloud of Segregation?

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson provided the 100th Anniversary address in 1963 and he spoke to a need for justice for African Americans, those people most impacted by the war’s outcome. One portion of the speech is quoted below but you can Listen to his entire speech in the video created by the LBJ Library.

“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by asking, “Patience.” … To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough. … The Negro says, “Now.” Others say, “Never.” The voice of responsible Americans—the voices of those who died here and the great man who spoke here—their voices say, “Together.” There is no other way.”

It should not be a surprise that some criticized LBJ for “politicizing” Gettysburg to garner support for President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill.

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It appears that Gettysburg has been politicized well before Kearns Goodwin by the 50th and 100th commemoration keynotes. But these occasions are not alone in how they are commandeered by a politically motivated speaker. I have been amazed, for example, during graduation season, when a president gives the commencement address at a university, and includes political policy he wants to put forward. Like many in the crowd Monday at Gettysburg’s 150th, most of the students in the audience do not want to hear policy talk on their graduation day. Even though these type of speeches should be used to unify us, history tells us we should expect the speaker’s political perspectives to win out. Perhaps we should in the future view the battlefield keynote as the contemporary perspective of the battle, expect it to be political and expect debate to follow as it has for the past 150 years.

Most of us know where to find reliable Civil War history and it is not in keynote addresses as none of them explained why the soldiers fought and died at Gettysburg. There are many programs at Gettysburg this week that provide better insight to the soldiers and their experiences. This analysis of the debate circling the Gettysburg Keynote address has provided me clear examples for students to analyze how history is used and politicized. What does this tell us about our era? Have we entered the post-Civil Rights era? Will future social movements continue to use Gettysburg as a rallying cry?

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One thought on “A Long History of ‘Political’ Gettysburg Keynote Addresses

  1. Pingback: A Long History of ‘Political’ Gettysburg Keynote Addresses | HistoricaLese

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