NEW YORK — Four score and 70 years ago, a Pennsylvania newspaper chided Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks.”
This week, in time for the speech’s 150th anniversary, Harrisburg’s Patriot-News apologized for “a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”
With that, the newspaper’s editorial board issued an unusual media mea culpa that has captured national attention despite its tongue-in-cheek approach.
It read in part: “Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words ‘silly remarks,’ deserving ‘a veil of oblivion,’ apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.”
“Just think: The speech, the exact words of it, are still looked at, thought about and dissected,” said Michele Hamill, a conservator at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where one of five copies of Lincoln’s handwritten speech is on display through Nov. 23 in commemoration of its delivery Nov. 19, 1863.
“He was a very thoughtful writer, and it shows,” Hamill said, referring both to the penmanship and the substance of the speech, which was short — about two minutes — but memorable.
So too was the dissing it received in some media, a scoff that haunted the Harrisburg editors until their editorial, which ran Thursday with a column explaining the decision to declare: “The Patriot-News regrets the error.”
Donald Gilliland, the reporter who wrote the explanatory article, noted that the dismissive comments about Lincoln’s address did not appear until five days after he had delivered them. Days earlier, the paper — then called the Patriot & Union — had devoted extensive coverage to the president’s visit to the Pennsylvania city, including printing the full text of his speech without editorial comment, Gilliland noted.