From the WSJ Opinion Archives
LEISURE & ARTS

In Lincoln's Hand
Change of Address: The Gettysburg drafts.

by GABOR BORITT
Thursday, November 16, 2006 12:01 A.M. EST

In the middle of a terrible war that would take the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, Abraham Lincoln went to a little Pennsylvania town on Nov. 19, 1863, to dedicate the nation's first national cemetery and to explain why the war had to go on. In some 270 words he gave the world a definition of democracy, and in time his Gettysburg Address became not only the best known speech on the globe but a document of great monetary value as well.

The first draft of Lincoln's speech, often called the Nicolay copy, has an adventurous post-creation history. The president probably wrote the first part in Washington, with pen, on Executive Mansion stationery, and the second part in pencil, at the Wills House in Gettysburg, on the evening of Nov. 18. But we do not know for certain.

This much we do know: John Nicolay, the president's secretary, eventually took possession of the Lincoln papers. And in 1885 he wrote about the Gettysburg Address that "the original ms. is now lying before my eyes." His daughter, Helen, turned the Lincoln papers over to another former Lincoln secretary, John Hay, upon Nicolay's death in 1901, and she inadvertently included the Gettysburg Address with it--and possibly the second draft as well.

After Hay's death in 1905, the whereabouts of the first draft continued to remain unknown to the public even as the news of the existence of the second draft, or "Hay" copy, surfaced. In 1916, the Hay family presented both the first and second drafts to the American people. They have been at the Library of Congress ever since, except for a brief refuge at Fort Knox during World War II, together with the second draft.

Lincoln wrote the second draft in ink on the same lined paper as the second page of the first draft, most likely on the morning of Nov. 19, at the Wills House. If so, this was the reading copy, though this, too, is not entirely certain.

Various people unsuccessfully attempted to buy the second draft from the Hay family, among them J.P. Morgan, who reputedly offered the then unheard-of sum of $50,000 (close to $1 million today) early in the 20th century.

And what of other versions? After a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation brought the great sum $3,000 for Chicago's Northwestern Sanitary Fair in the fall of 1863--the money going for the support of Union soldiers--Edward Everett and Mrs. Hamilton Fish requested from the president a copy of the Gettysburg Address for the New York Sanitary Fair. Lincoln obliged them, sending Everett a revised manuscript. Though it was advertised, no evidence appears to exist that the item sold, though much later a $1,000 price surfaced. An acquaintance of Everett's, Boston merchant Carlos Pierce, became its owner. After his death in 1870, his widow sold it to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Henry Keyes, and in her family the document long remained.

With the onset of the Depression, the document's owner at the time, U.S. Sen. Henry Wilder Keyes, sold it to manuscript dealer Thomas Madigan for $100,000. He in turn sold it to Chicago banker James C. Ames, for $150,000. After Ames's death in 1943, in order to make the document accessible, his heirs offered it to the Illinois State Historical Library for a modest $60,000. Illinois schoolchildren collected $50,000 of that, and department store magnate Marshall Field added the rest. The manuscript is now at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Lincoln wrote the fourth copy of his speech to help the Baltimore Sanitary Fair raise money for soldiers. But he used both sides of the paper, making it unsuitable for reproduction in a book to be sold at the fair. Historian George Bancroft, who had requested the manuscript, kept it. The document stayed in the Bancroft family until Cornell University Prof. Wilder D. Bancroft sold it in 1929 to Madigan. The appraised value was $100,000. As the Depression deepened, Madigan had to sell the copy for half the amount he had paid a few years earlier. Indianapolis dealer Arthur Zinkin obtained the document in 1935, apparently on behalf of the wife of a former drug company executive, Nicholas Noyes, and the couple presented it to Cornell University in 1949. There it remains to this day.

When the first Baltimore Sanitary Fair copy failed to serve the purpose for which Bancroft had intended it, his stepson, Alexander Bliss, asked Lincoln for still another. He sent to the White House, at Secretary Nicolay's request, the ruled paper that Lincoln was to use so that the speech could be lithographed. This was the only copy that, at the urging of his Baltimore correspondents, Lincoln dignified with a title, "Address delivered at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg," a rare full signature, and the date: "November 19, 1863." This final draft, generally considered the standard text, was reproduced for the Baltimore fair; the manuscript itself remained in the Bliss family until 1949, when it was sold at a Parke-Bernet auction.

Though experts predicted a sales price "as high as $125,000," the speech brought a disappointing $54,000. While private sales had fetched much larger sums, that price still "set a new high record for the sale of a document at public auction," according to the New York Times. The purchaser was Cuban businessman Oscar Cintas, a former ambassador to Washington. Though the Castro government claimed the Cintas properties after it seized power, Cintas, who died in 1957, had willed the Gettysburg Address to the people of the U.S. with the proviso that it should be kept at the White House. There it went in 1959, and there it remains today.

Manuscript dealers and scholars fantasize about discovering unknown copies of the Address. Garry Wills's popular "Lincoln at Gettysburg" postulated that at one time another copy of the Address may have existed, sent to Lincoln's Gettysburg host, David Wills. The latter had indeed asked for a copy, but no evidence exists that he received one, nor did he ever claim that he did.

In the early 21st century, with less significant Lincoln documents fetching seven-figure prices, the value of a copy of the Gettysburg Address must be in the many millions. Seth Kaller, a highly reputable dealer, ventures that it would fetch the highest price ever paid for a document, higher than Leonardo Da Vinci's papers that Bill Gates bought for more than $30 million in 1994. But unless one of the revered institutions that own the five copies were to face bankruptcy--an unlikely event--we cannot expect to witness the sacrilege of such a sale.

Every so often Lincoln scholars are brought copies of the Address with a request for authentication. The standard procedure is simple: Compare the "newly discovered" document against the facsimiles of the five copies Lincoln made--these readily available on the Web or in printed form from the Library of Congress. If the match is exact, the document is a forgery.

Mr. Boritt is the author of "The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows" (Simon & Schuster, www.gettysburggospel.com).