Ken Burns has posted a video of President Barack Obama reciting the Gettysburg Address.
Amazingly, the president fails to recite the words under God in the phrase, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
I’m not sure why President Obama deleted this phrase. (I’ll leave that to conspiracy mongers.) There are five copies of the Gettysburg Address from Lincoln’s lifetime, known as the Bliss, Nicolay, Hay, Everett, and Bancroft copies. The Bliss copy–the only one with Lincoln’s signature on it–is generally considered authoritative. It and the Everett and Bancroft copies contain the words under God, while the Nicolay and Hay copies don’t.
Regardless of what was written, however, it is certain that when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, he uttered the phrase, “under God.” I’ll let Robert P. George explain:
Of course, none of these copies is actually the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address is the set of words actually spoken by Lincoln at Gettysburg. And, as it happens, we know what those words are. (The Bliss copy nearly perfectly reproduces them.) Three entirely independent reporters, including a reporter for the Associated Press, telegraphed their transcriptions of Lincoln’s remarks to their editors immediately after the president spoke. All three transcriptions include the words “under God,” and no contemporaneous report omits them. There isn’t really room for equivocation or evasion: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—one of the founding texts of the American republic—expressly characterizes the United States as a nation under God.
President Obama has been the subject of too many conspiracy theories, and I’m sure the omission of the words under God will generate an entirely new round of them. At best, the omission of the words was unintentional, perhaps the result of a faulty text provided to the president by Ken Burns. At worst, it was intentional, either the reflection of an academically persnickety textual criticism–nonetheless false–or the grinding of an ideological axe. Either way, the president should be embarrassed that he got roped into misquoting one of America’s most famous speeches.
UPDATE: Larry O’Connor notes:
A text box now appears on the Ken Burns website http://www.learntheaddress.org which states: “Did you know there are five versions of the Gettysburg Address? We asked President Obama to read the first, the Nicolay Version.” A cached version of the same webpage from several days ago shows no such reference.
Curiouser and curiouser.
UPDATE 2: Over at The Wire, Abby Ohlheiser defends the president by noting that he is reading the Nicolay copy of the Gettysburg address. “Far from an issue of omission, the fake controversy now dominating the anniversary of the important speech is more or less about conservative perceptions of the president’s arrogance. Even though comparing oneself to Lincoln, paraphrasing his words, imbuing new meaning to the Gettysburg Address itself is a routine practice for politicians from every party, there’s a certain special fury summoned when Obama does it. If anything, Ken Burns’s project demonstrates that no matter what critics might feel, everyone deserves to access, personify and celebrate the meaning of the speech. No matter which version it may be.” How she can describe as a “fake controversy” the omission of words from the Gettysburg Address that she herself concedes Abraham Lincoln actually spoke is beyond me.
UPDATE 3: The White House has released a handwritten, one-page essay by Pres. Obama that explains what the Gettysburg Address means to him. It is unclear to me which of the five copies of the Gettysburg address hangs in the side office Pres. Obama refers to. According to this source, cited by Ken Burns’ website, it is the Bliss copy which hangs in the Lincoln bedroom.