Illinois’ Copy of the Gettysburg Address Is Coming Out of the Vaults, and It Has a Weird Back Story

(Rachel Bostwick / Pixabay)(Rachel Bostwick / Pixabay)

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is bringing its original, handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address out of storage on Friday and putting it on display through Nov. 30 to coincide with the famous speech’s 158th anniversary.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Owned by the state of Illinois since 1944, the copy is one of only five in existence written by Lincoln himself. Normally kept in a climate-controlled vault, the historic document will be on public view in the museum’s Treasures Gallery.  

Eagle-eyed observers might notice something curious about the copy: The 272 words are scrawled onto two pages, numbered “57” and “58.”

That’s because Lincoln’s script was once bound in a book containing the other Gettysburg Address penned by Edward Everett— a famed orator and former president of Harvard, secretary of state, governor of Massachusetts and U.S. senator. Everett was billed as the primary speaker at Gettysburg in 1863, during the dedication of a national cemetery for Union soldiers.  

It was Everett who took to the podium first, and held the stage for two hours, his opening gambit a harbinger of the verbosity to come: “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”

Lincoln followed with his modest remarks, notable at the time for their brevity, unforgettable a century and a half later for their impact. Everett recognized the genius and power of the words, writing the president: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

He asked Lincoln to send a copy of his address for inclusion in a volume to be auctioned for charity, along with Everett’s own 50-page speech. Lincoln obliged with what’s come to be known as the Everett copy.

After changing hands a few times, the Everett copy was offered for sale in the 1940s by its then owners to Illinois for a purchase price of $60,000, or the equivalent of $950,000 in 2021, according to the Lincoln museum.

Children across the state helped raised money, bringing in $50,000, and Marshall Field III kicked in the rest of the required funds. 

And what of the other four copies?

— Lincoln gave one each to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. Both reside with the Library of Congress. The Nicolay copy is considered the earliest version and the only working draft created before the speech’s delivery. Scholars believe a portion of the Nicolay copy was written once Lincoln arrived at Gettysburg.

— The Hay copy was likely written shortly after Lincoln returned from Gettysburg and contains a number of variations from Nicolay’s version.

— The Bancroft copy was requested of Lincoln by George Bancroft, the most famous historian of his day, for fundraising purposes, much like the Everett copy. It’s kept at Cornell University in New York.

— The Bliss copy was made for Alexander Bliss, Bancroft’s stepson, for the same fundraising scheme. It was acquired from the Bliss family in the 1940s and is now kept in the Lincoln Room of the White House. 

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will be closed Thanksgiving Day.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors