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Is Democracy Feasible? (Reflections on the Gettysburg Address)

for Glen Thurow

The 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.

Commentary:

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.”

Bibliography

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.

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.

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