The Gettysburg Address
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.
The Opening Lines
“Four score and seven years ago” from 1863 is 1776. It is curious that Lincoln would pick the Declaration of Independence as the founding document as opposed to the Constitution, for the question of whether the Southern States can legally secede from the Union or would be in rebellion if they so attempted is a Constitutional question. It is agreed that both North & South did indeed revolt against Great Britain for the reasons listed in the Declaration.
Then again, the Declaration is the more universal of the documents, when contrasted with the Constitution. The Preamble of the Constitution begins with “We the People,” meaning we as citizens of these United States. But the most famous passage of the Declaration, that which the Gettysburg Address is a direct commentary on, reads:
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’s “we” is most certainly universal, not just the rambling of a particular people, for to effect a just break in the bonds uniting Britain and her colonies, both sides must understand what is just. The basis of justice is truth here, self-evident truth: all men are created equal; all men have certain Rights. If they didn’t, there never would have been a government anywhere, at any time. The purpose of any given government is to secure equality, to secure rights.
Lincoln understands the Civil War to be the most significant war. The question is whether people can govern themselves or not, “whether any nation so conceived can long endure.” Is any attempt at democracy doomed to failure, since majority/minority divergences mean one group may always be slighted to the point of war? You can see all throughout this speech Lincoln’s refusal to talk about the Civil War in particular terms: there is no mention of Gettysburg, no mention of the number dead, no mention of the Confederacy or slavery or the battle itself or even the fact this is America. Something far more significant, encompassing all of mankind, transpired at Gettysburg.
Lincoln & Jefferson are agreed on the universal significance of the American enterprise, but there is divergence. This nation was “conceived in Liberty” & “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” “Conceived” implies that maybe not all governments are conceived such, that maybe Jefferson’s notion that all governments derive their right from the consent of the governed is false. “Dedicated to the proposition” again implies a defect in Jefferson’s formulation. For Jefferson, that all men are created equal is a matter of knowledge. It is self-evident truth.
But a “proposition” is something that has to be proved true or false. It is not necessarily true. To be dedicated to a proposition is a matter of belief. To be an American is to believe all men are created equal, to work to make that a truth as best one can.
The Third Paragraph
“Dedicated” & “consecrated” & “hallowed” are the most interesting words for our purposes in this paragraph. This speech is loaded; if you read Dr. Thurow’s or Dr. Brann’s work, they consider Lincoln in the light of his other speeches, and Gettysburg is indeed the culmination of a career in political rhetoric. The thoughts Lincoln develops about democracy are more thoroughly explored in Shakespeare and Rousseau, the former of which he quotes elsewhere. The latter he probably knew in a second-hand way through acquaintance with Bentham; Leo Paul de Alvarez has argued Lincoln’s Temperance Speech shows familiarity with the notion of a civil religion in Rousseau.
“Hallowed” is the word to start with. It only occurs once in the speech, and is proclaimed to be impossible to do. Man cannot make anything holy. Only God makes something holy, and such holy things will show in the providence of time.
“Consecration” is something the crowd at Gettysburg, or anyone reading the speech, cannot directly participate in. The blood of the honored dead, who fought that this nation might live, has consecrated the ground.
One wonders how much ground they have consecrated, for the entirety of the people must be re-dedicated. It seems like the blood of the few at Gettysburg has consecrated the entirety of the American nation, maybe the world. For everyone must now engage in the project that has been advanced thus far.
Note that the fathers “conceived” a nation so “dedicated,” and now the soldiers “consecrate” a nation so “dedicated.” But what are the people who are witnesses to the sacrifice that has been made dedicated to?
The answer is a “new birth of freedom.” What on earth does that mean? So far, everything mentioned has been squarely within the confines of preserving the American project…
…except that to preserve the American project, of course, means to be dedicated to equality and liberty. Which means the Emancipation Proclamation, set forth earlier that year, is not merely “Look, here are some people to aid our war effort.” It means that the former slaves have to be made full citizens and treated fully as human beings, so we are truly in the spirit of the Declaration, as the Constitution, which did its best to marginalize slaveholders (“slavery” is never mentioned once in the Constitution. The attempt to say it was a protected right to hold slaves, i.e. Dred Scott, was pretty ridiculous), was.
It also meant that those in “rebellion,” as Lincoln considered the Southerners, had to be treated with the utmost respect, and accepted once again into the American enterprise. This is clear from the Second Inaugural, where in the face of an unknowable will of God, we must do our best to be united, and restore justice to all.
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.
Addendum (Credit to Wikipedia for reminding me of these things)
- The birth metaphor of the opening is echoed in the phrase “a new birth of freedom.”
- There are indeed parallels between this speech and Pericles’ Funeral Oration. From my own work on Thucydides, though: Does Pericles see the ancestral as important to a democracy
- “Four score and seven years ago” is Biblical language: see the King James Version, Psalm 90 (credit/discredit Wikipedia and Lincoln scholar Guelzo for this – I haven’t checked this yet, or why exactly it might be relevant)
- Another way I’ve been using recently to talk about the speech: It opens with a birth metaphor, closes with the idea of a new birth of freedom. In between there is a baptism of a nation. The organic and spiritual metaphors both contrast with “self-evident” and “instituted,” words that hearken to science and positivism.
- Oh, and anyone that tells you “Lincoln is a racist” or “Lincoln didn’t have to fight the war, the South would have gone broke” and “His transcendental ideals were costly” is someone who loves slavery, and would be glad to know you’re comfy as a slave somewhere if it meant they felt free. Lincoln: “If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.”
Thurow, Glen. Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion. SUNY Press, 1976.
Leo Paul S. de Alvarez. “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.