Local history buffs attempt to enter the record books with Lincoln speech

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Feb. 14, 2011
Participants recite Abraham Lincoln's farewell address in Norwich City Hall. The reading was part of a nationwide attempt to break the Guinness World Record for most people reading the same document aloud simultaneously. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Participants recite Abraham Lincoln's farewell address in Norwich City Hall. The reading was part of a nationwide attempt to break the Guinness World Record for most people reading the same document aloud simultaneously. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

A dozen or so people can’t set a Guinness World Record – at least, not by themselves.

But the 14 people who showed up at Norwich City Hall Friday were part of a nationwide effort to break the current Guinness World Record for the largest number of people reading aloud simultaneously from the same document.

The document was President Abraham Lincoln’s farewell address, delivered on Feb. 11, 1861, to his friends and neighbors, as he departed Springfield, Ill., en route to his inauguration. The public reading was part of a series of events commemorating the lead-up to the Civil War, 150 years ago.

Across town, 245 students and teachers at Norwich Free Academy read the document too, said NFA history department chairman Karen Cook. That number included students and teachers of all history classes that met at noontime.

“The program was all run by students,” said Cook. “The students wore red, white and blue, and we had a student dressed like Abraham Lincoln. It made for a nice sense of occasion.”

 Participants hoped to break the standing record of 223,363 readers, set in 2006 by readers using the same speech.

To make sure that the reading would be simultaneous from coast to coast, the speech was repeated aloud by participants five times, starting a couple of minutes before noon Eastern Standard Time and continuing until a few minutes past.

Other sites hosting record-breaking hopefuls included the Great Western Train Station in Springfield, the speech’s original site

By Lincoln’s inauguration, the stage had been set for the impending War Between the States, said Vic Butsch of the New London County Civil War Round Table, which helped organize Friday’s local event.

“Already seven states (had) seceded,” he said. “The country was torn apart. People had never seen anything like it. What they didn’t know was that six months from (the speech), they would see the start of the worst war our country has ever known.”

In the minute-long address, Lincoln expresses his trust in God’s assistance as he prepared to face “a task before me greater than that which rested upon (George) Washington.” He commended the people in Springfield to God’s care, instructing them to “confidently hope that all will yet be well.”

Norwich has a strong connection with Lincoln, said Slater Museum director Vivian Zoe. He came to the city in March 1860, on what she called “a test-the-waters visit” for the presidency at the invitation of then-mayor William Buckingham. The two men became friends and campaigned for each other – Buckingham for Lincoln’s presidential bid, and Lincoln for Buckingham’s successful run for governor of Connecticut.

Buckingham eventually achieved renown as one of Lincoln’s “war governors,” said Zoe. “The small state of Connecticut supplied more munitions and men (to the Union cause) than any other state” during the Civil War, she said.

Zoe said that she found out about the record-setting attempt on the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. “Knowing Norwich’s connection to Lincoln, I thought it would be fun to try for the record,” she said.

The Norwich segment of Friday’s event was coordinated by several local organizations, said Norwich Historical Society secretary Diane Brown. Along with her group, the Civil War Round Table and NFA’s history department, assistance came from the Norwich branch of the NAACP and the Greater Norwich Anti-Bullying Coalition. “There were only 14 of us (here), but we still had all that involvement,” said Brown.

Norwich education chair Sheila Hayes of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) agreed. “It represents a good cross-section (of the community),” she said.

David Blanchette, a spokesperson for the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, said that it will take a few weeks to tally the participants nationwide and determine whether the numbers warrant an application for a new Guinness World Record. It will be an additional month or so for a record to be confirmed, he said.


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