On this day – 20 September, 1803
They are two very different orations. One is short, a mere 269 words and lasting barely three minutes. The other is in excess of 3,000 words, and must have taken closer to half an hour to deliver. The earlier speech was given by a man marked for a judicial death, the later by one who would be mown down by an assassin’s bullet within eighteen months.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America, was born five years after the execution of the young rebel United Irishman, Robert Emmet, but the bizarre connections between the two men are compelling and inescapable.
Both were Republicans, both are perceived by their acolytes as martyrs and both have become elements of two distinct Pantheons. Emmet, a post- Enlightenment Irish Republican, atoned for the hapless nature of his one day rebellion on 23 July, 1803 in Dublin by making the single most famous, effective and affecting speech in Irish nationalist history. Lincoln was one of the founder members of the anti-slavery Republican party and its first successful Presidential candidate in 1860. His election precipitated the debilitating four year American Civil War (or the War Between the States if you happen to be a southerner). His Gettysburg address was a model of rhetorical clarity, creativity and brevity. Ironically, the principal speaker on the day was Edward Everett, an unsuccessful Vice Presidential candidate in 1860. His speech was a whopping two hours long. In central Pennsylvania. Outdoors. In November.
Emmet’s speech, made after his conviction for High Treason in Green Street courthouse in Dublin, is famous for its passionate peroration, made as he faced death by hanging the following day.
‘Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.’
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, made on 19 November, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetry at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, scene of the decisive battle four and half months earlier, is more famous for its iconic opening line – ‘Fourscore 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.’
Emmet’s speech marked the death of one man – Lincoln’s grieved at the sacrifice of thousands. They do, however, have one thing in common. No one is agreed on what exactly was said. There are five extant versions of the Gettysburg address and as many of Emmet’s Speech from the Dock.
But did Emmet’s speech influence the creation of the most famous short speech in history? Very likely. As a boy in Indiana (where his family had migrated from Kentucky) Lincoln is known to have learnt Emmet’s valedictory off by heart. As a gangly teenager he would often deliver it as a party piece for dignitaries visiting Perry County, where he lived.
More than a quarter of a century later, at the first Republican National Convention, in New York, in 1856 the explorer and ‘pathfinder’ John C. Fremont was chosen as the party’s Presidential nominee. Soundly defeated by William L. Dayton for the Vice Presidential slot was Abraham Lincoln. The Chairman and keynote speaker at the Convention was a New York Judge and politician, Robert Emmet, the Dublin-born son of Thomas Addis Emmet (United Irishman and 1798 revolutionary) and nephew of his celebrated namesake. In his speech Emmet attacked the rival Democratic Party and how its newly chosen standard bearer, James Buchanan, had proven himself to be aligned with slave interests.
In February, 1865 Lincoln, who had been forced to grapple with many grave moral dilemmas during the Civil War, was reviewing the death sentence on a young Confederate spy. He was considering an appeal for the boy’s life from a Delaware Senator, Willard Saulsbury. The identity of the petitioner alone would have been enough for lesser men to have arbitrarily confirmed the sentence. In January, 1863, Saulsbury had referred to the President as ‘a weak and imbecile man, the weakest that I ever knew in a high place.’
Saulsbury was both frank and astute in his appeal to Lincoln. He wrote – “You know I am no political friend of yours. You know I neither ask or expect any personal favor from you or your Administration . . . All I ask of you is to read the defence of this young man, (Saml B. Davis) unassisted by Counsel, compare it with the celebrated defence of Emmet, and act as the judgment and the heart of the President of the United States should act.”
Saulsbury knew his man. The death sentence was duly commuted.
In 1939 the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood, friend of Dorothy Parker and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It starred Raymond Massey, who later reprised the role in the 1940 film version directed by James Cromwell. Massey, after playing the role 472 times on Broadway, seemed to take on the form and characteristics of Lincoln. He spoke and dressed like him. This caused his friend, the playwright George S. Kaufmann, to observe that ‘Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him.’ The significance of the play is in Sherwood’s middle name, Emmet. He was the great-great-grandnephew of the executed patriot. It was as if the Emmet family, having accepted the homage of the young Lincoln, was repaying the compliment.
Emmet would have been proud of the peroration of his celebrated acolyte – ‘ . . we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’
Robert Emmet, died on a scaffold in Thomas Street in Dublin 210 years ago, on this day