Friday, April 10, 2015

Edward Everett, eloquent advancer of equality

Because of Abraham Lincoln's succinct and eloquent Gettysburg Address, history is left with the impression that, because he spoke for two hours before Lincoln, that Edward Everett is a big bag of air. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Edward Everett was an excellent speaker. In the mid-19th century people were more ceremonial. The dedication of a cemetery was a solemn occasion that deserved speeches worthy of the weight of the event. As great an orator as Lincoln was, Edward Everett was the main speaker for a reason, as he was one of those rare men who could keep an audience's rapt attention for two hours. That in itself was exceptional.

But judge Edward Everett by his actions and not his words, and you have an even more exceptional man. At a time when the nation struggled with slavery, he was already paving the way toward integration.

Born the fourth of the eight children of the Reverend Oliver and Lucy Hill Everett on April 11, 1794 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Edward Everett was a bright lad. His father died when he was 8, and young Everett became friends with Daniel Webster, who would distinguish himself as a senator and great lawyer whose own oratorical skills became so renowned that Stephen Vincent Benét would write a short story as a tribute to his skills, "The Devil and Daniel Webster," nearly a century after Webster's death.

Twelve years younger than Webster, Everett nevertheless quickly closed that gap intellectually. He entered Harvard at 13, graduating as valedictorian at age 17. He studied for the ministry under the tutelage of Harvard president John Thornton Kirkland. Upon receiving his master's, Everett became the pastor at Brattle Street Church, a Unitarian church. In 1814, he began teaching Greek literature at Harvard. The position included two years of travel to Europe. He was barely 20 years old. He took classes in French, German, Italian, Roman law, archaeology, and Greek art at the university of Göttingen. In 1817, he became the first American to earn a doctorate at that institution.

Back in America, he quickly established himself as a teacher, scholar and speaker. Ralph Waldo Emerson who first heard Everett speak at the Brattle Street Church, idolized him. He wrote that Everett's voice was "of such rich tones, such precise and perfect utterance, that, although slightly nasal, it was the most mellow and beautiful and correct of all instruments of the time."

Everett also married well, marrying Charlotte Gray Brooks, the daughter of a wealthy marine insurer, on May 8, 1822. Ten months later they had the first of six children, the youngest would become a congressman.

Which makes sense as his father entered politics. serving five terms as a congressman before his election as the 15th governor of Massachusetts, taking office in November 1835. He was an abolitionist who believed in temperance -- the pillars of the Republican Party which would form 20 years later as a national party.

But the first concern of Everett, though, was public education. Under his leadership, Massachusetts set up the nation's first state board of education. Mark Twain's later ridicule of boards of education aside, Everett named education reformer Horace Mann as the state school board's secretary.

Temperance though would do Everett in. His Whig Party passed a law restricting the sale of whiskey, which cost the party dearly. Everett lost election to a fifth consecutive one-year term by a single vote. The next year, President Tyler appointed him ambassador to England, The job ended when President Polk appointed Louis McLane to succeed him. Such are the ups and downs of a political career.

However the lost diplomatic appointment would lead to his presidency of Harvard -- which was the worst job he would ever have, and the one where he would leave behind his best legacy: The enrollment of Beverly Garnett Williams in the Class of 1852.

Returning to Boston in September 1845, he was named president of Harvard. But the school was short of resources and long on rowdy, drunken students, many of them from the South. Harvard's own official biography of Everett admits this. He complained one day at the Morning Prayers, "When I was asked to come to this university, I supposed I was to be at the head of the largest and most famous institution of learning in America. I have been disappointed. I find myself the sub-master of an ill-disciplined school.”

He did not help himself when he changed the name of thee institution to University of Cambridge.

The one saving grace of his Harvard years was Beverly Garnett Williams. Not much is known about him but he was a classmate of Everett's son. Everett proclaimed Williams the best Latinist he had ever encountered. The skills of Williams were debated in Congress. For you see, Williams was black. There was an outcry, but Edward Everett could not care less, saying, "The admission to Harvard College depends upon examinations; and if this boy passes the examinations, he will be admitted; and if the white students choose to withdraw, all the income of the college will be devoted to his education."

Historian Faiz Siddiqi wrote, "Students, faculty, and pro-slavery Southerners (apparently a large faction back then) rioted upon hearing the news. But the anger was all harbored in vain."

That is because young Williams died from tuberculosis before he could begin classes. It would be another 28 years before a black student would actually be an undergraduate at Harvard, however its medical school accepted two black students to its medical school in 1850, after Everett left.

Everett would succeed Daniel Webster as Secretary of State upon Webster's death in October 1852, then he served briefly in the U.S. Senate. He resigned due to poor health.

As the 1860 presidential election approached, people felt the union would not survive the election. While the Democratic party split in two -- a northern nominee and a southern one -- a faction of ex-Whigs who wanted to preserve the union formed the  Constitutional Union Party, and nominated John Bell for president and Everett for vice president. The ticket carried Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, Everett quickly and ardently supported the Union cause.

His appearance at Gettysburg reflected a pattern for Lincoln of mending fences and forgiving political opponents, often winning them over. Indeed, the next year, Everett would be one of Lincoln's electors in the Electoral College. But a month later, while speaking to raise money for the war refugees of Savannah, Edward Everett caught a cold and died six days later on January 15, 1865. His nephew's grandson, actor Edward Everett Horton, carried on the oratorical legacy of his great-great-uncle as a voice actor most noted for his narration of the "Fractured Fairy Tales" on the Bullwinkle cartoon shows. Listening to those old cartoons, one does hear what Emerson said of the original Edward Everett's voice -- "rich tones, such precise and perfect utterance, that, although slightly nasal, it was the most mellow and beautiful and correct of all instruments of the time."

He tried to free the slaves, keep the union, and integrate Harvard. In time, all these things came to pass. Far from being a bloviator, he was a man of action years ahead of his time.

All the previous Exceptional Americans. The first book collection will be out in May.


  1. Loved learning the connection of Gettysburg Address and Bullwinkle

  2. The first Edward Everett I heard of was Horton, in Rocky & Bullwinkle, and have enjoyed a number of his movies of the '30s and '40s. Didn't know of his namesake ancestor.
    Another great vignette.

  3. banning the sale of less than 15 gallons

    Do you really mean "more than"?

    1. Thanks. The source said less than. I punted and reworded it.

  4. Both Lincoln and Everett were famous and eloquent speakers. Both master wordsmiths. Mr Everett praised Lincoln for his short speech, and Lincoln penned a letter to him in return. I believe that Everett was the first to recognize the mastery of the Gettysburg address. Such a shame that his words are today little regarded.