Recently I’ve been working on a piece about the Gettysburg Address.* As always, I’ve done more research than required,** wandered down some interesting by-ways that were not relevant to the project, and had my preconceptions about the topic turned upside down and shaken. As always, My Own True Love has convinced me to remove some bits that caught my imagination, but didn’t belong in the article.
I came away with new ideas about battlefield cemeteries (apparently a Civil War innovation), Lincoln’s reputation as a speaker, and the difficulty of finding saddle horses in a war-torn region. But the piece of information that knocked me off my metaphorical seat was finding out that the one thing everyone “knows” about the Gettysburg Address isn’t true.*** Lincoln didn’t write the speech at the last minute on the back of an envelope. He apparently wrote several careful drafts over a matter of weeks–a process that Lincoln scholars have unraveled with careful textual exegesis, though they don’t always agree on the details.
I don’t know why I’m surprised. It sometimes seems as if none of the historical stories that appear in our elementary school textbooks–and that find a permanent home in our collective consciousness–are factually true, thought they are often emotionally satisfying. The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock was certainly not the first Thanksgiving in the New World and probably didn’t happen quite the way we learn the story. People will get into shouting matches (or at least pissy written exchanges) over whether Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, but the story still appears in history books as if it were unquestionably true. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a PR creation from the first.
I would argue that these stories survive and thrive because they are simple–something historical “truth”**** rarely is–and because they are, in fact, stories. We use story to understand the world. Just like traditional fairy tales give us a framework for a moral universe, historical tales give us a framework for the past. The fact that sometimes the framework needs to be rebuilt, doesn’t make the need for stories less real.
What do you think about the gap between historical tale and the moving target of historical truth? What are some of your favorite examples?
*Coming soon to a copy of History Channel magazine near you.
**If you’re interested in Lincoln’s thought and use of language, I highly recommend The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words by Ronald C. White, Jr. and Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words by Douglas L. Wilson. Both of them seduced me into reading far more than the chapters on the Gettysburg Address and reminded me of what a complicated man Lincoln was.
***Okay, the second thing everyone knows. Lincoln did, in fact, give the speech. Thank you, Amy Sue Nathan, for catching me on this.
**** A tricky concept at best since at some level all history is revisionist history.