McGonagall at Gettysburg
Guidance for Mr. Lincoln, from a Scots Poetic Genius, on how to make a Good Speech
’Twas in the year of 1776, and on July the 4th day
That our people declared independence without dismay,
For on that date a new nation was founded,
Which upon certain noble principles was grounded.
Those principles were liberty and equality;
And oh! how the people did dance in their glee,
For they would no longer pay taxes to far-away kings
And they could buy their goods with dollars instead of shillings.
Now, eighty-seven years later, we are engaged in a war
For to test whether such a nation can long endure,
And because the backs of the slaves in the South are sore,
For of cruel abuse and punishment they can take no more.
Here on this field was fought a great battle,
Of which the world for a very long time will prattle;
Our Union troops were led by General Meade,
And to a man they all fought very bravely indeed.
But alas! I am very sorry to say
That many thousands of lives were lost that day,
And on the two days that preceded it;
But ’twas a victory and, by God, we needed it.
For in the end the rebel hordes were made for to flee,
Even though they were commanded by Robert E. Lee,
And in spite of that general’s undoubted charisma
Our forces defeated him without any stigma.
The world will not for very long remember
What we say here on this 19th day of November,
But ’tis rather those who fought here who’ll be remember’d
Because many of them were killed, or at least dismember’d.
Now ’tis for the rest of us to finish the task they began,
And to gainsay it there’s very few people can.
So let us ensure these men died not in vain,
And that in future no one will have cause for to complain.
Therefore, fellow citizens, be advised by me,
Whether ye be of high or low degree,
That the hearts of the people will be filled with elation
If a new birth of freedom be had by this nation.
And our final resolution is really quite simple:
That government of the people, by the people, for the people,
For which there’s a demand in every clime,
Shall not perish from the earth for a very long time.
The above poetic gem, unmistakably the work of William McGonagall, was recently discovered among the Lincoln family’s private papers. In addition to its content, its very existence is interesting for two reasons: firstly, it indicates that McGonagall was already practising the art of poetry some years earlier than had hitherto been supposed; and, secondly, it could shed an entirely new light on the poet’s relationship with other great figures of the age. It is possible that, after Mr. Lincoln had given his Address and it had received widespread international coverage, McGonagall felt convinced that he could improve upon it and, somewhat in the manner of the renaissance parody Mass, decided to fashion an altogether grander and more memorable work based upon the original material. In a spirit of helpfulness, the poet would naturally have sent the President a copy of the resulting lay.
It is equally plausible, however, that the poem may have been the result of Mr. Lincoln’s approaching the Scots poet and tragedian for advice and suggestions in advance of his forthcoming address at Gettysburg. If so, this would explain why the President, having made liberal use of the poet’s ideas in his speech, would have chosen to keep McGonagall’s document private – being understandably reluctant to reveal that most of what became known as “his” Gettysburg Address, and the ideas expressed therein, were in fact largely the work of another.
Either way, admirers of William McGonagall – and indeed of Abraham Lincoln – will wish to compare the two versions and judge their respective merits for themselves.
— Stephen Midgley, with acknowledgments to William McGonagall and Abraham Lincoln