Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Washington’s Mount Vernon linked

By Chuck Springston
Edward Everett raised money to save Mount Vernon.
Edward Everett raised money to save Mount Vernon.

    Today we commemorate the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Lincoln’s 270 or so words constitute one of the most important speeches in U.S. history—a powerful evocation of the nation’s ideals and aspirations.

     But this also is a day to honor another speaker on the platform in Pennsylvania on Nov. 19, 1863: Edward Everett. Mostly known for delivering a little-remembered speech that went on for more than 13,500 words, Everett made a significant contribution that can still be appreciated today. A decade before the Gettysburg dedication, Everett raised a substantial sum to help preserve the home of George Washington.

     In demand

     By the early 1850s Mount Vernon, the Potomac River estate in Virginia where Washington had died in 1799, was slipping into decay.
     A woman from a wealthy South Carolina family passed by the estate on a boat in 1853 while returning from a trip to Philadelphia and wrote to her daughter: "I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
     The daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham (1816-1875), “was inspired by her mother's sentiments and took up the cause of purchasing and restoring Mount Vernon,” according to a history of the preservation efforts on Mount Vernon’s website.
     At the time Mount Vernon was owned by the first president’s great, great nephew, John Augustine Washington III. The farm was no longer profitable, and he hoped to sell the famous mansion, along with 200 acres, to the federal or state government for $200,000. Neither would take him up on the offer.
     Cunningham decided she would try to save Mount Vernon by recruiting other women to the cause. She wrote a letter to the Charleston Mercury in December 1853 calling on Southern women to join her. Other newspapers in the South—and later in the North—reprinted the letter.
     In 1854, Cunningham created the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, a national organization to coordinate and lead the fundraising efforts. Her overtures for a purchase were rebuffed. John Augustine Washington still preferred to work out a deal with the federal or state government.
     Cunningham hoped to change his mind with money and continued her appeals to people in letters to newspapers.
     One reader was a former pastor, editor of a literary magazine, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, governor, ambassador to Britain, president of Harvard, secretary of state for President Millard Fillmore, senator and renowned public speaker, Bostonian Edward Everett (1794-1865).
     He would later write to Cunningham, “Your enthusiasm … kindled mine,” according to a paper presented by Linda Ayres at a Mount Vernon symposium in 2003. 
     Everett, who delivered a Boston lecture about the first president in early 1856, said he would present the same speech in Richmond, Va., as part of a fundraiser for Cunningham’s association. He continued to make fundraising speeches over the next five years.  
     Everett “also served as an extremely close adviser and counselor” to Cunningham, Ayres wrote.
     He considered John Augustine Washington’s asking price “exorbitant” but suggested that Cunningham’s association continue its push for donations until Mount Vernon’s owner agreed to negotiate. At times, Everett “undertook negotiations himself,” according to Ayres. He told the association in March 1858 about “an overnight visit to that ‘sacred spot’ during which he worked on the proprietor of Mount Vernon.”
     The next month, Washington signed a sales contract with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The association made an $18,000 down payment and agreed to pay the rest of the $200,000 in annual installments until Feb. 22, 1862. The debt was paid by December 1859, and the association took possession of the property on Feb. 22, 1860—two years early.
     Everett accounted for a third of the $200,000 -- contributing $69,551 that he received from writings and lectures. Indeed, in 1858, he wrote an article each week for the New York Ledger, which paid him $10,000 to give to Cunningham’s group as a donation.
     Everett delivered his speech on Washington 129 times between March 19, 1856, and spring 1861. He traveled to cities throughout the country. He once spoke five times in seven days and traveled 1,600 miles in 10 days. People generally shelled out $1 or $2 to hear him speak, and all of the money went to the Mount Vernon campaign. 

     Out of style

     Crowds were frequently large. At least one speech was attended by about 2,000 people.
     They might have been drawn by Everett’s reputation or an interest in Washington, Ayres speculates. But they also got to hear an orator who was “inspiring, informative, and entertaining”—even though his speeches were filled with long sentences, complex themes and esoteric references.
     Everett’s Washington speech was two hours long, just like the one at Gettysburg. Although often disparaged today when contrasted with Lincoln’s remarks, Everett’s speech at the battlefield was generally well-received at the time.
     Lincoln aides John S. Nicolay and John Hay, in their biography of the president, stated: “It is not too much to say that for the space of two hours he held his listeners spell-bound by the rare power of his art,” notes Garry Wills in “Lincoln at Gettysburg” [1992, Simon & Schuster Inc.].
     One observer said the audience was “in tears many times during his masterly effort,” wrote David Herbert Donald in his biography, “Lincoln” [1995, Simon & Schuster].
     Not everyone was impressed, as Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in “Team of Rivals” [2005, Simon & Schuster]. The Philadelphia Age’s editor said, “Seldom has a man talked so long and said so little.”
     Even Everett realized that Lincoln’s speech was something special. “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 wrote to Lincoln.
     After the Gettysburg Address, Everett’s oration style would soon leave the stage.
    “It was made obsolete within a half-hour” after Everett spoke, Wills says in his book. “Lincoln’s remarks anticipated the shift to vernacular rhythms that Mark Twain would complete twenty years later. Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address.”
     As long-winded and discordant as Everett’s speeches sound today, they likely helped save Mount Vernon, one of the country’s most important connections to its past. How many other speakers can say they have done the same?      

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