Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”

for Glen Thurow

Gettysburg Address
Abraham Lincoln

Four score 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.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that 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.

Comment:

It is fashionable in our time to speak of the Emancipation Proclamation as utterly useless. It did not technically free any slaves in Union territory. Some abolitionists were slightly saddened by it, as it cast emancipation as “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing [the] rebellion.”

However, it was not clear at the time of the Proclamation that an end to the war would mean an end to slavery. The war was being fought for the integrity of the Union. This country was racist enough to kill each other for at least two years and not care whether slavery was a problem or not. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the war aims so that Lincoln’s privately stated truism, “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” could be formally acted upon. The Border States, crucial to the Union even having a chance in the war, had been encouraged prior to adopt gradual emancipation. The Proclamation meant that “gradual” might not be fast enough, as slavery was destined to end in America.

The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1st, 1863. The Gettysburg Address was delivered later, in November of that year. Even though it doesn’t mention race, the Gettysburg Address elaborates on how radical a change had to occur in America’s understanding of itself. We take for granted nowadays how long this country has endured. We forget that less than a hundred years after its founding, it broke in two and nearly destroyed itself entirely. The Gettysburg Address brings us back to that moment, where nothing can be taken for granted.

I

“Four score and seven years ago” from 1863 is 1776. Not the Constitution of 1787, but the Declaration of Independence itself has to be rethought. Lincoln is specific about what most needs to be emphasized: “all men are created equal.” To go back to Jefferson’s famous phrasing:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Jefferson claimed “that all men are created equal” is self-evident truth. This is geometric metaphor; self-evident truth may not be immediately seen, but if one thinks about it, it has to make itself clear. Lincoln, who called Jefferson his mentor in all things political, must of necessity doubt this. When he writes, the United States is at war with itself, and those fighting for Union or against Union, as he says in the Second Inaugural, only see slavery as “somehow the cause of the war.”

Lincoln claims that what the Declaration actually did was dedicate us “to the proposition that all men are created equal.” A proposition has to be proved true. The geometric metaphor is undone in Lincoln’s language; “fathers,” “brought forth,” “conceived,” “dedicated” – these words attend the emergence of human life.

Sometimes, we prove something true by believing it to be true, by making ourselves the central matter.

II

Even though the first line alludes to the Declaration of Independence, the Address contains no details which place it in a particular place and time. There is no mention of Union or Confederacy, of race or slavery. Except for the title, “Gettysburg” does not appear in the speech itself. The “great civil war” would test “any nation so conceived and so dedicated” as ours.

All of American history, as well as the central problem of most modern democracies, is the tension between liberty and equality. These are, when compared with societies of the past, strikingly vague notions. Sparta demanded courage of its inhabitants, and had laws to train them to be the best fighters possible. Governments with feudal legacies had established churches, aiming to enforce the Torah written on one’s heart. Liberty and equality were purposely made concerns of this Enlightenment Republic, as they help ensure government does things for us while respecting our freedom.

No amount of speaking in grand themes, though, can ultimately prevent democracies from infighting or decay. Every democracy has a majority that wants its way and minorities that feel threatened by their rule. If the majority does not get its way, that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the system, as democracy is meant to be rule of the people. If minorities do not get their way, that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the system, as democracy is meant to secure rights for all in opposition to systems dominated by privileged factions.

Equality in the broadest sense, as something valuable in and of itself, is the only way to ensure that our conflicts as citizens in the end are good for all. This is a difficult thing to say now, as “equality” lends itself to regimes such as “socialism” and “communism.” It was even more difficult to say in 1863, when people literally argued some form of “I’m free. Why can’t I have slaves?”

III

Lincoln ends by meditating on what the living can actually do with belief, with sacrifice: “in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.” Why are they gathered, if nothing can be done? What is truly “fitting and proper” about the occasion?

“Hallow” only occurs once in the speech, and is proclaimed to be impossible to do. Man cannot make anything holy. Only God makes something holy; such holy things show in the providence of time.

Neither the crowd at Gettysburg, nor anyone reading the speech, can “consecrate.” The blood of the honored dead, who fought that this nation might live, have consecrated the ground.

Some form of “dedicate” occurs in each paragraph of the speech. To wit: our fathers dedicated this nation to the proposition all men were created equal. People doubt that any nation so dedicated can long endure. We are here to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a resting place for those who fought. The ground itself cannot be dedicated, in the largest sense.

The importance of dedication lies in the consecration prior. Through actually fighting for the freedom of others, by nobly advancing the cause of liberty, the soldiers showed themselves thoroughly dedicated to what America stands for. We note this and dedicate ourselves to the same task. We do not allow them to die in vain.

We understand now that Lincoln and Jefferson have a muted, if potent, philosophical disagreement because of the fragility of the American enterprise. The first things, the final causes, are showing given that nearly anything could have doomed the Union. “I hope to have God on my side,” Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said early in the war, “but I must have Kentucky.” (1)

In our present situation, we understand that “a new birth of freedom” was necessary after the war and failed to come about in any significant sense until – maybe – the Civil Rights Act. The trap for Lincoln, and us, is surprisingly the same: the debased use of “liberty,” where “liberty” means the license to treat others like dirt. What stuns me is the surprising amount of energy we can marshal to fight for the largest comfort, that of feeling in the right no matter what we do. In the face of that, “equality” acquires a moral status far weightier than any supposed association with socialism or communism. It certainly means more than any sentiment that there is too much social justice and not enough virtue in the world. It is not a limit on liberty, but the precondition for it. It is the only proof we have that our rights are universal, that other people can actually share in them too.

 

Bibliography

Thurow, Glen. Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion. SUNY Press, 1976.

de Alvarez, Leo Paul S. “Reflections on Lincoln’s Political Religion.” Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, and American Constitutionalism. ed. Leo Paul S. de Alvarez. Irving: University of Dallas Press, 1976.

Brann, Eva. “A Reading of the Gettysburg Address.” Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, and American Constitutionalism. ed. Leo Paul S. de Alvarez. Irving: University of Dallas Press, 1976.

Notes

(1) Gienapp, William. “Abraham Lincoln and the Border States.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 13, no. 1 (1992). 13

21 Comments

  1. Interesting points is he also making a point about memory and the fact that memory is useless without continuing the state in whose memory the men have fallen. In a sense he sees memory as an active thing- a thing which gives strength to the fighters for the republic.

  2. Yeah, that’s definitely there. In doing the deeds afterwards, one shows true remembrance. This theme is consistent with the “worship” of Washington and the Founders in Lyceum.

    Someone might say such a treatment of the dead is cruel, and that we are more humane in how, after 9/11, we tried to appreciate everyone who died in the WTC attack, and how in America right now, we’re trying to get to know every soldier and show appreciation. Lincoln doesn’t seem content to dwell on particulars.

    I think that difference can be thought of as one of decorum, but also because of the casualty reports at Gettysburg: we’ve lost 3000-4000 in Iraq in the States over the years; at Gettysburg, 60,000 wounded in three days.

  3. I think contrasting this to the way such speeches were made in the day is interesting as well. It is so short. We are used to “sound byte” speeches today but it was a novelty then.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  4. Nice piece, however to me there is so much in both these documents that contradicts themselves it just makes me wonder how deep one could real tear down the writing.(If that makes any sense to you). Lots to dwell on , and perhaps after I read again I’ll make sense to someone other than myself. I like your writing Get the mind going.

  5. Your comments are quite astute and have captured the essence of the Gettysburg Address.

    The definitive work for studying the Address in depth is: Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words Which Reshaped America, by Garry Wills.

    Thanks,

    Geoff Elliott

    The Abraham Lincoln Blog

    http://abrahamlincolnblog.blogspot.com

  6. Hello – thanks for a thought provoking post. At one point, when you said, “that maybe Jefferson’s notion that all governments derive their right from the consent of the governed is false,” I wondered if you do believe that is false, and if so, on what premises do you make that conclusion?

    – Scott

  7. i just finished reading “roots,” the history of an african-american family, so this is particularly poignant to me.

    you say,

    “something far more significant, encompassing all of mankind, transpired at gettysburg.”

    as a german-born person who has lived in canada for over 25 years, and thus is not that deeply connected to US history, i have to agree with you.

    of course it’s a double edged sword. lincoln’s idea of “the universal significance of the american enterprise” is, unconsciously perhaps, what makes some people in the US think that this specific type of enterprise must, because it’s universal, be carried out everywhere else.

    i really like how you investigate the idea of the proposition. it would be interesting to delve even further into that.

  8. Thanks for the comment you left on my blog and the link to your posting. No matter how insignificant we think our blogs might be it’s encouraging to know that others are reading them, even if only for a moment! :-)

  9. Hi Ashok,

    Great thinking on the Gettysburg Address. I did not connect the “four score and seven” to Psalm 90, but once it was pointed out, it seems obvious. I wonder if Lincoln did this consciously, or had just picked up the phrasing to be serious?

    The relevant verse is:

    10The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

    This ties to the deaths at the battle and transcience of life.

    There is much more that may be mined here, but first I must be convinced that Lincoln made a conscious allusion to the Psalm.

    jjvors from Digg

    The whole Psalms speaks of God’s greatness and eternity. Interestingly, it was written by Moses.

    Psalm 90 (King James Version)

    Psalm 90

    1Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

    2Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

    3Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

    4For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

    5Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

    6In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

    7For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.

    8Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

    9For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.

    10The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

    11Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

    12So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

    13Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.

    14O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

    15Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.

    16Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.

    17And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

  10. @ OSWebMaster:

    I think that Ashok is right that Lincoln felt Jefferson might have been wrong that governments get power from their “consent of the governed.” Jefferson surely felt they should, of course, but consider Hamilton’s contrast between our experiment of government by reflection and choice versus the old accident and force, then think of how a dictator gets his power.

    So maybe it is not the case that Jefferson was wrong, but that governments typically did not have the consent they needed.

  11. Re Jefferson, powers, and the consent of the governed. You’re all overlooking a word: Jefferson wrote “_just_ powers”. Obviously, a government can rule without consent. There were in 1776 any number of “oriental despotisms” and arbitrary monarchies such as Russia that ruled by mere force. What Jefferson asserted was that it cannot do so _justly_. However wise or benevolent a ruler is, his authority is not morally legitimate unless those he rules have consented to his rule.

  12. Ashok,

    I thought you would find interesting the work of the (sadly popular) ‘progressive scholarship’ being done on Lincoln right now. Garry Wills, for one, says in his book review of Lincoln that he did the nation “the favor of being fruitfully wrong.”

    In short, this guy would have sided with Judge Douglas in the debates, and it seems at least to me that this is all politically charged. By saying that Lincoln was wrong – albeit benevolently wrong – that the Founders really meant “all men” when they said it in the Declaration, the significance of the Founding can be marginalized by making the Washingtons and Jeffersons look like hypocrites. In that you have the ability to set up some weird sort of evolving notion of justice, as if Lincoln did not restore old principles but invented new ones. Thus history has been a happy unfolding of progress, each generation a little more liberal (and better) than the last.

    Here is the link to Will’s review:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22750

  13. Ashok–

    I like what you say here about the Declaration being the more universal of the two Founding documents; it is certainly true. Do you agree with Lincoln’s assessment of the Declaration — that it was the “golden apple” and the Constitution the “silver frame,” the apple being made to sit in the center of the frame? It would seem extraordinary to say that the Constitution is simply an ordinary document, but I’m not sure…If I remember correctly, Fred Douglass didn’t connect the two documents together in quite the same way Lincoln did, and it seems like he felt the Constitution was intrinsically good.

  14. Ashok,

    Great post. I have one question, what do you make of Lincoln’s use of dedicated, consecrated and hallowed? Something Upham observed in his lecture on this speech is that Lincoln is going back and forth between “French” and “German” words. The “French” words are softer, and appeal to a more educated audience. The “German” words are harder, and appeal more universally between the educated and uneducated.

  15. I’ve stumbled this post in the hopes that we can get even more conversation on the title question.

    While the analysis itself is excellent, I’m more interested in your final paragraph:

    “Democracy is feasible, but it requires beatitude. Otherwise, it is worse than worthless: it is merely prelude to anarchy. It is truly tragic that awareness of the need for beatitude should come at the expense of so much blood.”

    Interpreting the first sentence literally, the government of the people, by the people is not possible without the blessing of a deity.

    Is this a conclusion drawn from the interpretation and analysis of Lincoln’s closing statement? Or is this an analytical summary of the speech?

    If the former, it would open the door to a whole discussion on the contradictions in this country about the separation of church and state. If the latter, it shows a remarkable ability on your part to get to the heart of a body of work.

    Either way, that is the best statement about Democracy that I’ve ever seen.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

  16. oh my God… my dad used to recite this to us when we were kids and when we joked around on not taking him seriously. By the way, he was a military man, and he is also into international historical events.

    The use of the word “conceived” has the most impact on this speech to be able to convince the people for a new freedom. Its kinda funny though that in today’s modern times, the more modest and honest the speeches are, the more convincing they will be.

  17. this could help me a lot on my reaction with regard to the Gettysburg address. although i am not an American citizen, i do appreciate this speech for giving birth to democracy. it has a great impact to democracy.

  18. A great speech by the greatest president of the United States.

  19. the thing that really gets to me is that our four father set up this land so that the people would govern and be free to just be and to have less government involved in the day to day, but now there is more government infringement than ever. We should have less government not more. Those who can not take care of themselves must first try and and continue to try before getting a handout.

  20. I was quite disappointed to see you use an ad hominem attack at the end of the essay. If Lincoln is not a racist, he at least had no qualms about poising as one in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Rather than insisting on deifying him, we should consider the contributions of men like James Mitchell Ashley towards the prohibition of slavery. (Need we be reminded that the process of amending the Constitution does not directly involve the office of President, and so perhaps we should say that the thirty-eighth United States Congress freed the slaves.)

    I am no friend of slavery; in fact, I have no qualms about offending people by telling the harsh truth of where their cheap luxuries come from, and why they are horrible people for taking advantage of such. But Lincoln was not a perfect man, or even a good man. His transition on slavery was a flagrant attempt to ride the political winds of the era, and he should not be given the credit for the accomplishments of better men.

  21. I don’t think anyone wanted to “ride the political winds of an era” so as to get engaged in a war where half the country dies.

    And while it may be the case Lincoln actually wasn’t a good man, saying Lincoln isn’t a good man is a great way to quietly defend some of the more noxious positions fringe groups hold.

    The ad hominem attack is necessitated. You’d think in a world where Barack Obama is President racism would be gone. It’s still a far away goal.

Leave a Reply

© 2015 Rethink.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑