In Part I of our discussion of President Woodrow Wilson and the Great Reunion (see our prior entry) we mentioned how Wilson “dithered” back and forth on whether or not he would attend the Jubilee…deciding only at the last minute, on June 28th, that he would indeed attend. His final decision caused somewhat of a stir among the organizers since they had previously cancelled the planned ceremonies for the final day of the commemoration (July 4th), the date on which Wilson had been scheduled to speak.
Now, the ceremonies for July 4th were back on…and to the credit of the Reunion Committee, the ceremonies on that final day of the Great Reunion that had been designated as National Day occurred smoothly.
What of the President’s speech…which was, as far as we know, the first Presidential address at Gettysburg since Abraham Lincoln’s masterpiece on November 19, 1863? In the official proceedings from the Great Reunion, various newspaper editorials are reproduced, including one from the July 5th issue of The Baltimore American in which Wilson’s speech the previous day was, essentially, given a “C+” grade:
“President Wilson appears to have ignored the challenge sent him by
the immortal speech of Lincoln upon the field of Gettysburg. Despite
the predictions that he would use the occasion to produce a masterpiece
that would gem literature he was content to address his audience
in the words of simple and obvious intent, being much more
concerned to lay emphasis upon the general good will of the Nation
and its magnificent unity than to lift up new standards of service, to
set forth slogans of conquest, to phrase the philosophies of the present
in aphorisms of brilliance. His address was quite in keeping
with the occasion and was sufficient for the demand made upon the
President of the Union.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the new President’s oratory abilities, huh?
Well, not so fast…
Portions of President Wilson’s address that day were indeed much as the critical editorial writer from Baltimore intoned in the above editorial. For example, one of the least inspiring Presidential statements I’ve personally ever “heard” was part of Wilson’s speech, a sentence in which he basically says “hey, I have absolutely no idea why in the world I was elected President; who’da thunk it?” Or, in more Presidential-speak:
“I have been chosen the leader of the Nation. I cannot justify the choice by any qualities of my own, but so it has come about, and here I stand.”
Yet immediately following the above words, Wilson’s next sentences were so stirring to me that I used them as part of the epigraph for Part I of Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion, immediately following a segment from Lincoln’s magnificent Gettysburg Address. In fact, before I reproduce those words from President Wilson, take a look at this segment from Lincoln and try to envision the two as bookends by two different Presidents, each man acknowledging the courage displayed by soldiers on both sides of the Battle of Gettysburg that would be revered for all time:
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
– President Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863
“Whom do I command? The ghostly hosts who fought upon these battlefields long ago and are gone? These gallant gentlemen stricken in years whose fighting days, are over, their glory won?”
– President Woodrow Wilson, Gettysburg, July 4, 1913
Lincoln’s words above were those that directly preceded his famous “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here” line, and while Wilson’s words that followed pale in comparison to that almost universally known statement, he (Wilson) did go on to proclaim “That host is the people themselves, the great and the small, without class or difference of kind or race or origin; and undivided in interest, if we have but the vision to guide and direct them and order their lives aright in what we do.”
So despite the criticism of President Wilson’s speech being bland, uninspiring, and all around “meh” (to use today’s teenage/college-age verbiage 🙂 ), I personally think much of this criticism was unjustified. Perhaps it’s only the phrase I reproduced above, a couple of short sentences stuck in the middle of an otherwise so-so speech, but to me those particular words of Wilson’s were a most appropriate exclamation point to the preceding three days of ceremony that occurred at the Great Reunion, honoring the more than 50,000 Civil War veterans who made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg in 1913…and memorializing so many more who were gone for one reason or another by the time fifty years had passed.