The Nicolay Copy of the Gettysburg Address

Executive Mansion,

Washington, ..................., 186

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal."

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final rest- ing place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow, this ground - The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedica-ted to the great task remaining before us - that, from these honored dead we take in-creased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of de-votion - that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of free-dom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not per-ish from the earth.

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, a decisive victory for the Union that had marked a point of inflection in the war, a "high water mark" from which the Confederacy's military and political credibility would gradually decline over the course of the next two years. Lee's invasion of the north was halted, and any remaining possibility of European recognition of the Confederate state dissolved once the news crossed the Atlantic. In the months that followed, the Army of Northern Virginia was pushed into a state of permanent defense, a game of cat-and-mouse with Grant's larger and better-resourced army that dragged out until the final surrender at Appomattox in 1865.

Dead Union soldiers at Gettysburg. The battle resulted in almost 50,000 casualties - for the Union, 3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, and 5,369 missing or captured; for the Confederacy, 4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, and 5,830 missing or captured. Source: Wikipedia.

In the 150 years since, Lincoln's speech has become a canonical text in American political and intellectual history. In a terse 240 words - cast in the simple, vernacular rhythm of the King James Bible and organized around the structure of Pericles' Funeral Oration in Thucydides - Lincoln elevates the war to the status of a universal moral struggle that transcends the specific political and cultural theater of the United States in 1863, a philosophical battle to defend the principle of human equality and ensure the survival of democratic government. As a historical event, though, the address was almost minor - Lincoln spoke for a few short minutes at the end of a two-hour oration delivered by Edward Everett (largely forgotten today), and contemporary reaction was mixed, praised by some as a "perfect little gem" but panned by others as "silly, flat, and dishwatery."

One of the only pictures of Lincoln at Gettysburg, taken at about noon, before Everett's oration and about three hours before Lincoln spoke. Lincoln is visible in the distance, on the platform in the middle of the crowd. Source: The Library of Congress.

About the Manuscript

The actual text of the speech has a fascinating and disputed history. There are five manuscripts of the address written in Lincoln's hand, two that were drafted soon or immediately after the ceremony and another three that were produced for charitable purposes well after the fact. It's generally agreed that the "Nicolay copy," shown here (Lincoln gave the document to John Nicolay, one of his personal secretaries) is the earliest draft of the text - the first page is written in pen on "Executive Mansion" stationery, probably in Washington during the days leading up the Lincoln's departure for Gettysburg, while the second page is written in pencil on lined "foolscap" paper, perhaps en route from Washington or at the home of David Wills, a Gettysburg attorney whose house served as the nerve center for the cleanup effort in the aftermath of the battle.

A second draft of the speech, known as the "Hay draft," was likely written immediately before the address or very soon after Lincoln returned to Washington. It's matter of some controversy, though, as to which was the actual "reading copy" that Lincoln held during the speech. In the past it's been generally assumed that it was the Hay copy, as indicated in the explanatory note that accompanies the manuscripts in the Library of Congress. This is also supported by the fact that the Hay copy more closely matches the contemporary transcriptions of the speech printed in newspapers and that it contains a number of line edits in Lincoln's hand, giving it the appearance of a working draft prepared before the delivery.

The Hay draft, page 1. The Hay draft, page 2. Source: The Library of Congress

At the same time, the physical size and appearance of the Nicolay copy seems to fit more closely with eyewitness account of the event, which describe Lincoln reading from a folded piece of paper. The Hay copy is written in pen on large paper with just a single fold down the center, which would seems to make it unwieldy as a reading copy [10]. Nicolay copy, meanwhile, is written on smaller pages (the "Executive Mansion" stationery was about 5 inches in width and 8 inches in height) and has clearly visible, matching folding creases, which would have reduced the manuscript down to a manageable 5 x ~2.5 inch rectangle when folded.


  1. Gettysburg Address - "Nicolay Copy". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  2. Gettysburg Address - "Hay Draft". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  3. Gettysburg Address. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  4. Gettysburg Address. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  5. Battle of Gettysburg. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  6. High-water mark of the Confederacy. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  7. Gopnik, Adam (May 28, 2007). Anges and Ages: Lincoln's language and its legacy. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  8. The David Wills House. National Park Service. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  9. Gettysburg: National Military Park. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  10. Pinsker, Matthew. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Google Cultural Institute. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  11. Lafantasie, Glenn W. The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows, by Gabor Boritt. Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  12. Autographed Letter Signed "A. Lincoln". Bauman Rare Books. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
  13. Baron, Dennis. On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's speech, will the real Gettysburg Address please stand up?. The Web of Language. Retrieved 2014-02-02.