Historicist: “The World Will Little Note Nor Long Remember…”
William McDougall, Canadian witness to the Gettysburg Address.
This post originally appeared on January 26, 2013.
It was only about 270 words long, but the Gettysburg Address has resounded for generations. Abraham Lincoln’s appearance on a podium in the small Pennsylvania farm town on November 19, 1863, has been reported upon, debated, studied by academics, memorized by school children, and mythologized in fiction and on film. Newspaper coverage of the day sometimes reflected a correspondent’s faithful observations, sometimes was tinted by an editor’s party affiliation. Conflicting and contradictory recollections of eyewitnesses, repeated—mistakes and all—in countless magazine articles and books, hardened into conventional wisdom. Certain persistent myths (that the president had hastily composed the speech on a scrap of paper aboard the train, for example) were long trusted as fact until debunked by another generation of scholars.
Among these layers of fact and legend is the tale of William McDougall. A Toronto lawyer, newspaperman, and politician, McDougall attended the Gettysburg Address by special invitation of President Lincoln. Like so many other versions of that day, McDougall’s account, recounted to and recorded by his descendants, contains a mix of both confirmed fact and unsubstantiated anecdote.
In the late 1840s, McDougall helped launch the Clear Grit movement and establish the movement’s newspaper, the North American. For the Clear Grits, Responsible Government (the principle of making Parliament accountable to the populace rather than the Crown) did not extend democracy far enough. They endorsed expanding the franchise, ballot voting, representation by population, and constraints on the political privileges of churches and the clergy, among other reform initiatives.
McDougall proved to be an eloquent orator and advocate of reform ideas. He was also an aloof eccentric, an outsider with a cynical view of politics. More interested in advancing his own political goals than solidarity with a consistent party line, McDougall shifted alliances freely depending on the issue. This, in addition to the wide number of constituencies he represented over his long political career, earned McDougall the moniker “Wandering Willie.” After McDougall’s death in 1905, obituaries noted quite euphemistically that the Father of Confederation was admired for his independence of character.
First elected to the legislature in 1858, McDougall abandoned his Clear Grit colleagues to join the cabinet of John Sandfield Macdonald and Louis-Victor Sicotte in May 1862. It was while he was serving as Commissioner of Crown Lands that McDougall was sent (with colleague Alexander Tilloch Galt) to Washington in November 1863 to negotiate the continuance of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 with the United States, then engulfed in the Civil War. Though there was a division of opinion in Canada about the Civil War, McDougall and his cabinet colleagues were decidedly pro-Union.
McDougall’s recollections of his visit to Washington and subsequent attendance at the Gettysburg Address were captured by two descendants (now in the McDougall Family Papers [S260] held in the Baldwin Room at the Toronto Reference Library)—what follows is drawn from those accounts.
President Lincoln received the Canadian envoys cordially at the White House on November 18. McDougall and the president hit it off, engaging in friendly conversation over common interests. “I’m sorry that because of my appointments I’ll be unable to take up your matter today, and tomorrow we dedicate the Battlefield of Gettysburg where I am to speak,” Lincoln explained, “but I expect to return to Washington tomorrow night and I will be glad to see you about your mission the day after tomorrow.”
Taking place in early July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle ever fought in North America, marking the northernmost point of the Confederate Army’s advance and a shift of momentum in favour of the Union forces. There were nearly 50,000 casualties over the course of three days; months later, the battlefield remained a rain-drenched bog of hastily buried bodies and half-exposed limbs when a local attorney, David Wills, was tasked by the State of Pennsylvania to oversee its transformation into a cemetery and to organize dedication ceremonies. While Edward Everett, the leading orator of the age, was to be the keynote speaker, Wills secured the president’s participation to provide dedicatory remarks. Lincoln took these duties extremely seriously.
“However,” the president said to his Canadian guests, “Washington is a nice place and I have no doubt you can enjoy yourself visiting the city in the meantime.” As he shook their hands to conclude the conversation, Lincoln paused and added:
I was just thinking that if you cared to attend the Gettsyburg dedication which we think is an important event perhaps you would like to be my guests and accompany my party. We leave on this afternoon’s train for Gettysburg and have arranged to stop overnight at a quiet inn near there. We could have dinner together and will drive to the battlefield in the morning.
McDougall quickly accepted, but Galt, citing other obligations, declined.
McDougall was among the foreign representatives invited to travel aboard the president’s train to Gettysburg, which, according to Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knowsalso included the representatives of Italy and France, Joseph Bertinatti and Henri Mercier, and their diplomatic staffs. In his diary, Lincoln’s private secretary John Hay recorded that it was “a pleasant sort of a trip.”
It was fitting that a Canadian representative attended the dedication. Although it was little recognized until well after the war’s conclusion, there were roughly 50,000 Canadians who fought for the Union Army, and hundreds in the Confederate Army, over the course of the Civil War. Of these, tens of thousands died, including many who fell at Gettysburg, such as Lt. Robert Evans, a 29-year-old Toronto native with the 108th New York Infantry.
Upon its arrival in Gettysburg at about 6 p.m. on November 18, the president’s train was greeted at the station by Everett and Wills. They ushered the president and some of his party—the remainder went drinking—into town.
McDougall would have entered a town bustling with activity. The main square, adjacent to Wills’ house, was crowded with celebrants singing and cheering for Lincoln. With six state governors and several members of the president’s cabinet confirmed to attend the dedication ceremony in addition to the president himself, excitement for the following day’s events had been steadily building for weeks.
Now, as tens of thousands of visitors descended upon the quiet town of 3,000, each lodging house was past capacity and every shed and stable was transformed into temporary accommodations. Unless Lincoln’s invitation to McDougall had included an offer of shelter (as McDougall’s account implies it did) the Canadian would’ve had an exceedingly difficult time finding a place to stay. At Wills’ house, where the president had a private second-floor room, even keynote speaker Everett had to share a bed with Andrew Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania. Another guest in town, with “an honored place on the platform,” Garry Wills writes in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, had to sleep in a parlour when no other space was available.
Wills and his wife hosted the president, his entourage, McDougall, and other guests around their dinner table. In supper conversation (interrupted occasionally by whoops and cheers from the public square) Everett found the president to be “the peer of any man at the table” in “gentlemanly appearance, manners, and conversation.”
In an affable mood after supper, the president traded lively anecdotes with McDougall in front of the fire until they were interrupted at a late hour by an impatient secretary of state Seward, who beckoned the president to finish revising his speech. “Up in Canada I understand you have a governor general and an attorney general and whenever the governor general has to make an important speech the attorney general assists him to compose it,” Lincoln explained to McDougall. “Now I am somewhat like your governor general and Mr. Seward like your attorney general and tomorrow I have to make an important speech, so I must ask you to excuse us so we can get to work on it.”
In fact, while Lincoln did retire to his room after supper to revisit and revise his speech, which he had drafted in Washington at least a week earlier, Seward was staying next door at the home of newspaper editor Robert Harper. After some time spent revising and committing it to memory, Lincoln asked Wills to direct him to Seward’s lodgings so the secretary of state could offer comments before the president retired for the night.
Under a bright, clear sky the following morning, Frank L. Klement notes in The Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery and Lincoln’s Address: Aspects and Angles, Lincoln, Seward, and McDougall mounted a buckboard for an hour’s drive through a part of the battlefield to the Lutheran Seminary, site of some of the bloodiest fighting. In a solemn and reflective mood, Lincoln “drew out the manuscript of the speech prepared the night before and read it over twice and then tore it up and threw it away with a dissatisfied air.”
Upon the party’s return to Wills’ house, Lincoln climbed to his room to dress for the day’s events, wearing black with a frock coat and his characteristic stove-pipe hat. The president re-emerged around 10 and mounted a black horse, ready to lead the gathered procession to the cemetery, located about a half mile away. But, Klement writes, with so many well-wishers thronging to shake the president’s hand, the procession’s departure was delayed until 11. Guided by a military escort, the president was followed by fellow dignitaries, townspeople, and visitors on its path to the platform.
Lincoln took his seat at the centre of the stage, flanked by Everett and Seward and the other guests of honour. More than 15,000 spectators crowded them on the platform. By that time, only about a third of the battlefield’s bodies had been reburied in the new cemetery—a task that would take until 1864—causing the event’s marshals some difficulty in the grim task of keeping the large crowd from trampling the work in progress.
Everett delivered a two-hour-long lecture detailing the movements and activities of the July battle. In contrast, Lincoln’s speech lasted barely two minutes.
The audience was stunned into silence by the brevity of the president’s remarks. In the days that followed, newspapers were severe in their assessment of the seemingly inadequate address. McDougall, it is said, was among the few who immediately recognized the brilliance of Lincoln’s oration.
And he asked for copies, which he sent to George Brown’s Globe (although there does not appear to be any direct response to the speech published in the Toronto newspaper) and other British North American papers. “[I]t was,” McDougall told friends, “a speech that would go down in history.”
It seems, however, that by reinforcing one of the most enduring myths about the Gettysburg Address, since debunked by Klement, McDougall may have claimed for himself a grander than earned role in events. In reality, Klement persuasively argues, the crowd’s applause interrupted the president five times during his speech. And at the conclusion of his remarks, the New York Times (November 20, 1863) noted at the time, Lincoln was greeted with “long continued applause.”
But the myth of the crowd’s muted reaction was largely perpetuated through the wholly unreliable eyewitness memoirs of Ward Hill Lamon, published in the 1890s, and repeated uncritically in book after book about the event. Eventually, McDougall’s positive reaction to Lincoln’s speech would be accepted as the consensus assessment of the crowd that day.
Other sources consulted: Jack and Sheila Cunningham, “McDougall and Lincoln” in Camrose Roots and Shoots (Volume 2 No. 1; Spring, 2005) [PDF]; a speech by John Diefenbaker (July 9, 1958) in Hansard (Vol. 102, No. 43); Bradley R. Hoch, The Lincoln Trail in Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001); Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., A New Birth of Freedom: Lincoln at Gettysburg (Little, Brown and Company, 1983); and newspaper articles in the Globe and Mail (March 2, 1951; February 12, 1955); and The News (May 29, 1905).
The caption beneath the photo of Abraham Lincoln with his secretaries originally mixed up the two names.
This post originally stated McDougall studied law in the office of James Henry Price, but it has been corrected to James Hervey Price.
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