Edward Everett liked the sound of his own voice. He was, after all, a minister, a politician and a university professor.
Others liked to listen to him too. One of his students, Ralph Waldo Emerson, idolized Everett and praised his speaking style. He described Everett’s voice as “slightly nasal” but “the most mellow and beautiful and correct of all instruments of the time.”
By 1863, Everett had earned the reputation as the nation’s leading orator. That made him a natural choice to lead the dedication ceremonies for the Gettysburg National Cemetery. He spoke for two hours, brought his audience to tears and upstaged President Lincoln, at least according to some.
Everett, though, knew who delivered the better speech.
He was born in Dorchester, Mass., on April 11, 1794, the son of a minister and his wife. He graduated from Harvard as class valedictorian at the age of 17. Unsure of what to do after graduation, he ended up studying for the ministry.
He was hired as pastor at the Brattle Street Church in Boston. Most of his congregation enjoyed his lively and florid sermons. Others, though, found him aloof and condescending. One critic said he “spoke like some superior intelligence, discoursing to mortals of what they ought to feel and know.”
In 1814, he delivered an over-the-top a funeral sermon for the Rev. John L. Abbott.
Farewell, dear brother, thy Saviour calls…Already thou hast past the portals of death; already thou hast mounted on seraph’s wings…Ages of happiness are bursting on thy soul! Thy march of Eternity has begun.
Later that year, Everett decided he preferred academia to the pulpit. Harvard offered him a teaching job, along with a two-year trip to Europe, and he jumped at it. He ended up spending four years in Europe, earning a Ph.D. at the University of Gottingen.
Everett returned to the United States in 1819, bringing German teaching methods to Harvard. Later, as Massachusetts governor, he brought the Prussian educational system to Massachusetts. He established the first board of education and named Horace Mann its secretary in 1837. The next year, he opened the first normal school in Lexington, now Framingham State University.
Who You Know
Everett quickly tired of teaching and turned his attention toward politics. He made connections with Boston’s elite, putting him in a good position to run for office.
In 1822 he married Charlotte Brooks, daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. Her sister, Abigail, married Charles Francis Adams seven years later. Everett’s own sister, Sarah, married Nathan Hale, publisher of the Boston Daily Advertiser and nephew of the Nathan Hale. Everett also made friends with Daniel Webster.
He won election to Congress in 1824 and served for 10 years. His tongue got him in considerable trouble when he led a three-hour speech on the House floor. In it, he referred to New Testament references to slavery. It seemed to put him in the pro-slavery camp. In reality, Everett opposed slavery – but not at the price of war or a break in the union.
He then served four years as governor of Massachusetts, followed by another four as ambassador to the United Kingdom. Then in 1846, he returned to Harvard as president. He hated the job, partly because he couldn’t control the rowdy students.
President Millard Fillmore named him secretary of state in November 1852 to succeed Daniel Webster, who had died in office. Everett’s taste for politics returned, and he won election to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.
Edward Everett for VPOTUS
After 15 months, Everett resigned because he didn’t oppose slavery aggressively enough to suit a constituency disgusted by it.
He then traveled the country with his family, promoting the reputation of George Washington. He gave more than 100 speeches recalling Washington’s life. Proceeds went to the purchase and restoration of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.
In 1860 he ran unenthusiastically for vice president of the United States on the Constitutional Union Party ticket, with John Bell running for president — against Abraham Lincoln.
But when the Civil War broke out, Everett defended Lincoln, often speaking out to defend his critics.
On Nov. 19, 1863, he found himself on the battlefield at Gettysburg delivering a two-hour speech — from memory — before 15,000 people. Traces of the fierce battle lay scattered everywhere: scarred trees, rifle pits, broken fences, scraps of blue and gray clothing, pieces of artillery wagons and harness.
Everett had spent weeks preparing. He interviewed soldiers, reviewed General Lee’s account of the fight and made sure he got every detail right.
He began in typical florid style. “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,” he orated.
Everett then managed to get over his hesitation. He told of the misery and tragic cost of the Battle of Gettysburg, moving his audience to tears.
But he also stressed hope remained for the future. He desperately wanted the speech to prepare the nation to come together after the war, which would end within six months.
“The people of the South are not going to wage an eternal war, for the wretched pretexts by which this rebellion is sought to be justified,” he said. Everett then enumerated the ties that unite the country as one people: language, belief, law, a common history, geography, railroads.
“These bonds of union are of perennial force and energy, while the causes of alienation are imaginary, factitious, and transient,” he said.
The Gettysburg Address
Today, Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent two-minute speech at that dedication ceremony is viewed as one of the greatest statements of national purpose: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”
Everett’s speech on reconciliation is often compared unfavorably to Lincoln’s speech on equality. But the speech was widely praised at the time. Lincoln was still a political figure and was even criticized for his brevity in some quarters. His delivery may also have suffered from the mild case of smallpox he was suffering. Everett’s lengthy table-setting effort to inspire hope was almost universally lauded.
Everett realized the brilliance of Lincoln’s short speech. He wrote to 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.”
The Gettysburg oration was Everett’s swan song. He had inherited the reputation as the nation’s most eloquent speaker from Daniel Webster, and the Gettysburg speech was his final masterpiece.
Little more than a year after the speech at Gettysburg, Everett gave a speech in Boston to raise money for the poor in Georgia, left destitute by the war. He caught cold and died days later, on Jan. 15, 1865.
This story last updated in 2021.