Obama, "Under God," and the Gettysburg Address

Conservatives are going crazy today because Barack Obama, while participating in a Ken Burns project on the Gettysburg Address, left out the phrase “under God” in his recitation of this great speech by Abraham Lincoln.

When I first heard this, I was very surprised.  It just seemed so odd, especially after Obama inadvertently left “God” out of a 2010 reference to the Declaration of Independence.  How could he make the same mistake twice?

But then I did some investigating.  After spending less than a minute on the “Learn the Address” website, I found this statement: “Did you know there are five versions of the Gettysburg Address?  We asked President Obama to read the first, the ‘Nicolay Verson’.”  You can learn about the five manuscript copies here.  The Nicolay version does not include the “under God” line in it.  By the way, Nicolay was one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries.

Well, that solves the problem.  There is no conspiracy here!  It turns out that Obama was participating in a history lesson.  Perhaps this small controversy will now alert many to the fact that there are different versions of the speech Lincoln gave on November 19, 1863.

But I do wonder why Obama’s staff would have agreed to let him read the John Nicolay version? Surely they knew that it did not contain the “under God” reference and as a result would lead to a big political headache at a time when Obama has enough problems to deal with on the Affordable Care Act front. Surely someone did their homework and thought about the political implications of his reading of the Nicolay version.

But apparently Obama or his staff did not anticipate this problem.  Yet another case why we need more historians in the politics business.

2 thoughts on “Obama, "Under God," and the Gettysburg Address

  1. Good thoughts, George. It does seem strange that Obama was the only one who read the Nicolay version. I told my “Teaching History” class today that rather than looking at this whole thing in a conspiratorial or even political light, it provides a wonderful opportunity to teach them about how some of our famous documents–in this case the GB–were made. If I were teaching in a high school or middle school today I would have brought this controversy to the attention of my students and then passed out copies of all five of the versions of the address and had students read them and compare them. In the process they would learn a lot more about the Address and how to read critically than if I went in ranting about how Obama did or did not leave out the phrase “Under God.”


  2. John:

    As I point out at my blog, President Obama was the only prominent American to recite the Nicolay version. Everyone else on Ken Burns' website cited the Bliss version, or at least a copy that included the words “under God.” So, it's not clear to me what history lesson Ken Burns thought he was teaching, especially since nothing in the video gives notice that the president is citing the first draft of the speech.

    Indeed, James Billington, Eric Foner, and Harold Holzer all include the words “under God” in their recitations. If anyone were positioned to teach a history lesson regarding the address, it's one of these men.

    Like you, I don't think there's a conspiracy here.

    “Because I don’t have a conspiratorial mindset, I’m not inclined to give credence to conspiracy theories, e.g., Obama is a crypto-atheist who’s out to destroy the religious foundations of the American republic. But that leaves me with only two options: (1) Ken Burns has a dilettantish predilection for textual criticism, which he somehow foisted on the president of the United States. (2) President Obama is politically tone deaf to the implications of using an obscure version of a famous speech that omits the words under God.

    “As scandals go, Under-God-gate is small potatoes. Still, it’s reflective of the president’s (or his staff’s) political tone deafness and poor judgment.”



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