Edward Everett was born on April 11, 1794 in Dorchester, Massachusetts (then independent from Boston), the fourth of eight children, to the Rev. Oliver Everett and Lucy Hill Everett, the daughter of Alexander Sears Hill. His father was a direct descendant of early colonist Richard Everett, and his mother's family also had deep colonial roots. His father had served as pastor of New South Church, retiring due to poor health two years before Everett was born. He died in 1802, when Edward was eight, after which his mother moved the family to Boston. He attended local schools, and then a private school of Ezekiel Webster. During this time Ezekiel's brother Daniel sometimes taught classes; Everett and Daniel Webster would later form a close friendship.
Everett attended Boston Latin School in 1805, and then briefly Phillips Exeter Academy, where his older brother Alexander Hill Everett was teaching. At the age of 13, he was admitted to Harvard College. In 1811, at age 17, he graduated as the valedictorian of his class. Unlike some of the other students at the time, Everett was an earnest and diligent student who absorbed all of what was taught. While a student, he was a member of the Hasty Pudding Club.
Uncertain what to do next, Everett was encouraged by his pastor, Joseph Stevens Buckminster of the Brattle Street Church, to study for the ministry. This Everett did under the tutelage of Harvard President John Thornton Kirkland, earning his MA in 1813. During this time in particular he developed a facility for working with both the written and spoken word. The Reverend Buckminster died in 1812, and Everett was immediately offered the post at the Brattle Street Church on a probationary basis after his graduation, which was made permanent in November 1813. Everett dedicated himself to the work, and became a highly popular Unitarian preacher. Listeners wrote of his "florid and affluent fancy", and his "daring imagery", while one critic wrote what would become a Common criticism of his speaking style: "[Everett] spoke like some superior intelligence, discoursing to mortals of what they ought to feel and know, but as if [he] himself were too far exalted to require such feelings, and such knowledge himself." Everett, over the year he served in the pulpit, came to be disenchanted with the somewhat formulaic demands of the required oratory, and with the sometimes parochial constraints the congregation placed on him.
The workload also took its toll on young Everett, who around this time acquired the nickname "Ever-at-it", which would be used throughout his life. For a change of pace, Everett traveled to Washington, D.C., where he visited with Daniel Webster and other Federalist Party luminaries from Massachusetts. In late 1814 Everett was offered a newly endowed position as professor of Greek literature at Harvard. The position came with authorization to travel for two years in Europe, and Everett readily accepted. He was formally invested as a professor in April 1815. Everett was also elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1815.
Everett made his way across western Europe, visiting London and the major Dutch cities en route to the German city of Göttingen. There he entered the university, where he studied French, German, Italian, along with Roman law, archaeology, and Greek art. He was a disciplined student, but he and George Ticknor, with whom he had traveled, were also quite sociable. Everett noted that they were viewed by many at the university as curiosities, and were often the focus of attention. He was granted a Ph. D in September 1817, which he believed to be the first such degree awarded to an American.
Everett took up his teaching duties later in 1819, hoping to implant the scholarly methods of Germany at Harvard and bring a generally wider appreciation of German literature and culture to the United States. For his Greek class he translated Philipp Karl Buttmann's Greek lexicon. Among his students were Future Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives Robert Charles Winthrop, presidential son and Future U.S. Representative Charles Francis Adams, and Future Philosopher and Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson had first heard Everett speak at the Brattle Street Church, and 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."
Other accomplishments during Everett's tenure include the authorization of an extension of the railroad system from Worcester to the New York state line, and assistance in the quieting of border tensions between Maine and the neighboring British (now Canadian) province of New Brunswick. Massachusetts was involved in this dispute because, as part of Maine's separation from the state in 1820, it retained ownership of public lands in the disputed area. The border issue had been simmering for some years, but tensions rose substantially in the late 1830s as both sides pushed development activity into the disputed area, and the United States refused to accept a mediation proposal made by the Dutch king. In 1838 Everett proposed to President Martin Van Buren that a special commission be established to address the issue.
Everett had decided as early as 1821 that he did not particularly like teaching. In July 1824 Everett gave an unexpectedly significant speech at Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society that would alter his career trajectory. Publicity for the event was dominated by the news that the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, would be in attendance, and the hall was packed. The subject of Everett's speech was "Circumstances of the Favorable Progress of Literature in America". He pointed out that America's situation as an expanding nation with a Common language and a democratic foundation gave its people a unique and distinctive opportunity for creating truly American literature. Unfettered by Europe's traditions and bureaucracy, Americans could use the experiences of settling the west to develop a new style of intellectual thought.
On May 8, 1822, Everett married Charlotte Gray Brooks (November 4, 1800 - July 2, 1859), the daughter of Peter Chardon Brooks and Ann Gorham, who like Everett were of old New England lineage. Brooks had made a fortune in a variety of Business endeavors, including marine insurance, and would financially support Everett when he embarked on his career in politics. Everett would also become associated through the Brooks family with John Quincy Adams' son Charles Francis, who married one of Charlotte's sisters.
The crowd reacted with lengthy applause, and not long afterward an informal non-partisan caucus nominated Everett as its candidate for the United States House of Representatives. Other political factions also endorsed his candidacy, and he was easily elected in the November 1824 election. He had expected to continue teaching at Harvard while serving, but was informed by its Board of Overseers that he had been dismissed because of the election victory. He took this news well, even agreeing to refund to the college the costs of his European travels. He continued to remain associated with Harvard, joining the Board of Overseers in 1827 and serving for many years.
Everett's most controversial action in Congress took place relatively early during his tenure there. In 1826 Congress debated a Constitutional amendment to alter the way the President was elected, so that Congress would not be required to decide (as it had in the 1824 election). Rising in opposition to the amendment on March 9, 1826, Everett delivered a three-hour speech in which he generally opposed the need to amend the Constitution. However, he also expounded on the issue of slavery, noting that "the New Testament says 'Slaves obey your masters'", and accepting the document even though it contained the Three-Fifths Compromise.
Everett retired from Congress in 1835, after deciding that he did not really like the rough-and-tumble nature of the proceedings in the House. He had been offered the nomination for Governor of Massachusetts by the Anti-Masonic Party in 1834; although he was known to be against secret societies like the Freemasons, he refused, and supported Whig John Davis for governor that year. Davis won the election, which was held in November 1834. In February 1835, the state legislature elected Davis to the United States Senate. In an arrangement brokered in part by Daniel Webster, Everett was promised the Whig nomination for governor (a move that upset Lieutenant Governor Samuel Turell Armstrong, who also sought the nomination). Everett easily defeated the perennial Democratic Party candidate, Marcus Morton, in November 1835. He was re-elected by comfortable margins in the three following years, all facing Morton.
In 1836 he was elected a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts.
One of the most notable achievements of Everett's tenure was the introduction of a state board of education to improve school quality and the establishment of normal schools for the training of teachers. Based on details of the Prussian education system which Everett had learned about, this groundbreaking accomplishment would be emulated by other states. The state Board of Education was established in 1837, with reformer Horace Mann as its secretary. The state's first normal school opened in Lexington the next year (it afterward moved to Framingham and is now known as Framingham State University).
Abolitionism and temperance were two issues that became more politically prominent during Everett's tenure, and both of those matters, as well as Whig indifference, would play a role in his defeat in the 1839 election. The abolitionist Liberty Party began to take shape in 1838, and the ill-timed passage of a temperance law banning the sale of less than 15 US gallons (57 l) of alcohol would drive popular support away from the Whigs in 1839. The election, held November 11, 1839, was so close that the results were scrutinized by the (Whig-dominated) legislature when it met in January 1840. A joint legislative committee reported that Morton received exactly one-half the votes cast, sufficient to secure his victory. (One vote less for Morton would have resulted in the Whig legislature deciding the election.) Everett refused to contest the results despite calls from the party to do so; he wrote, "I am willing to let the election go."
After leaving office, Everett traveled in Europe with his family for several months. When the Whigs, led by william Henry Harrison, won the 1840 presidential election, Everett was appointed ambassador to Great Britain at the recommendation of his friend Daniel Webster, who had been appointed Secretary of State. Everett was at first charged with handling the northeast border issues he first encountered as governor. A new British administration, friendlier to the United States than the previous one, sent Lord Ashburton to Washington to negotiate directly with Webster, and Everett's role was reduced to acquiring documents from British records, and pressing the American case to the Foreign Office. In this role Everett was instrumental in acquiring and distributing a map that vindicated the United States from accusations that it had cheated Britain out of land in the 1842 Webster–Ashburton Treaty.
Everett rebuffed several offers for other diplomatic posts proferred by Webster, who was unhappy serving under Tyler and apparently sought the UK ambassadorship as a way to distance himself from the unpopular president; Webster eventually resigned in 1843. Everett remained at his post until 1845, when after the accession of James K. Polk to the presidency he was replaced by Democrat Louis McLane. His last months in the post were occupied with the Oregon boundary dispute, which was eventually resolved by McLane along lines negotiated by Everett.
Even before his departure from London, Everett was being considered as a possible successor to Josiah Quincy as President of Harvard. Everett returned to Boston in September 1845 to learn that the Overseers had offered him the post. Although he had some misgivings, principally due to some of the tedious aspects of the job and difficult matter of maintaining student discipline, he accepted the offer, and entered into his duties in February 1846. The three years he spent there were extremely unhappy. Everett found that Harvard was short of resources, and that he was not popular with the rowdy students. One of his most notable achievements was the expansion of Harvard's academic programs to include a "school of theoretical and practical science", then known as the Lawrence Scientific School.
Everett's unhappiness with the post was apparent early on, and by April 1847 he was negotiating with Harvard's overseers about the conditions of the job. These talks were ultimately unfruitful, and Everett, on the advice of his Doctor, resigned the post in December 1848. He had been suffering for sometime from a number of maladies, some of them prostate-related. In the following years, his health would become increasingly fragile. He was somewhat rejuvenated by a visit to the springs at Sharon Springs, New York.
When the Whigs won the 1848 national election and returned to power in 1849, Everett returned to politics. He served as an aide to Daniel Webster, who President Millard Fillmore appointed Secretary of State. When Webster died in October 1852, Fillmore appointed Everett, apparently at Webster's request, to serve as Secretary of State during the remaining lame-duck months of his administration. In this post Everett drafted the official letter that accompanied the Perry Expedition to Japan, reversed Webster's claim denying Peruvian sovereignty over the guano-rich Lobos Islands, and refused to engage the United States in an agreement with the United Kingdom and France to guarantee Spanish control of Cuba. Although he stated that the Fillmore administration had no interest in annexing Cuba, he made it clear that the U.S. did not want to foreclose the option by engaging in an essentially political alliance, and reinforced the notion that the U.S. saw Cuba as its concern and not a matter for outside interference.
Everett was disheartened by the sectional divisions between the northern and southern states during the late 1850s. The 1860 election threatened to produce a national crisis, with pro-slavery Southerners splitting the Democratic Party and threatening secession if a Republican were to be elected President. A group of conservative ex-Whigs organized the Constitutional Union Party, which claimed as its sole principle the preservation of the Union. Supporters of Everett put his name forward as a candidate for President, but the party ended up nominating John Bell, and Everett for Vice President. Everett reluctantly accepted the post, but did not campaign very much. The Bell-Everett ticket received only 39 electoral votes, all from Southern states.
While he was still serving as Secretary of State, Everett was approached by Massachusetts Whig Leaders about running for the United States Senate. He was elected by the state legislature, and took the office on March 4, 1853. In the Senate he sat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and on the Committee on Territories. He was opposed to the extension of slavery in the western territories, but was concerned that the radical Free Soil Party's hardline stance would result in disunion.
Everett opposed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the territories to choose whether to allow slavery by popular vote, calling it a "horrible" and "detested" bill. However, because of his health he missed a critical vote on the bill, departing the chamber during a debate that ended up lasting all night. This angered Massachusetts anti-slavery interests, who sent him a strongly-worded petition to submit to the Senate. Because of his distaste for the more extreme elements in the abolition debate, Everett's speech in support of the petition was weak, for which he was further criticized. The rancor of the situation greatly upset Everett, and he submitted his resignation letter on May 12, 1854, after only a little more than one year into his six-year term, once again citing poor health.
In the wake of the election of Abraham Lincoln, seven southern states began seriously debating secession. Everett was an active participant in advancing the unsuccessful Crittenden Compromise in a last-ditch attempt to avoid war during the early months of 1861. When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, he became an active supporter of the Union cause. He did not at first think highly of Lincoln, but came to support him as the war progressed. In 1861 and 1862 Everett toured the northern states, lecturing on the causes of the war, and also wrote on behalf of the Union cause for the New York Ledger. Proposals were put forward that Everett serve as a roving ambassador in Europe to counter Confederate diplomatic initiatives, but these were never brought to fruition.
In November 1863, when the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was dedicated, Everett, by then widely renowned as the finest orator in the country, was invited to be the featured speaker. In his two-hour formal oration he compared the Battle of Gettysburg to battles of antiquity such as Marathon, and spoke about how opposing sides in previous civil wars (such as the War of the Roses and the Thirty Years' War) were able to reconcile their differences afterward. Everett's oration was followed by the now far more famous Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln. For his part, Everett was deeply impressed by the concise speech and wrote to Lincoln noting "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes." In the 1864 election, Everett supported Lincoln, serving as a presidential elector from Massachusetts for the Republicans.
On January 9, 1865, Everett spoke at a public meeting in Boston to raise funds for the southern poor in Savannah. At that meeting he caught cold, which he exacerbated four days later by testifying for three hours in a civil dispute concerning property he owned in Winchester, Massachusetts. Everett had written a letter to the publishers N. A. & R. A. the morning of his death, in the beginning writing "I have been very ill." He died in Boston on January 15, and was interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Everett, Massachusetts, separated from Malden in 1870, was named in his honor, as was the borough of Everett, Pennsylvania, and Mount Everett in western Massachusetts. Elementary schools in Dorchester and in Lincoln, Nebraska are named for him, as was a school in St. Cloud, Minnesota that was torn down in 1887. Everett donated 130 books to St. Cloud, beginning the community's first library.
In the 2015 documentary film The Gettysburg Address, Edward Everett is portrayed by actor Ed Asner.