I’ve been reading a couple of books about Lincoln, Ronald White’s pedestrian but informative A. Lincoln: A Biography and Garry Wills’ more ambitious and sophisticated Lincoln at Gettysburg, so the Gettysburg Address seemed a natural choice for a Memorial Day post; you proabably know it, but it’s worth reading aloud one more time:
I should mention that American history is not my bag, so if it is yours, the following remarks may have a certain “duh” factor.
The words are so familiar and the ideas so ingrained in our education that it is hard to reconstruct what was distinctive about them at the time. Certainly one puzzles at the review in the Times of London, which sneered at Lincoln’s “ludicrous” sally. Probably they just thought an American in a suit was intrinsically funny (their much-delayed punishment was to watch their Prime Ministers acting as sidekicks to genuine buffoons like Ronald Reagan and GW Bush).
The idea that our nation was dedicated to universal equality (however little we may have realized it) has become so worn as to be transparent, an empty cliché roughly equivalent to [insert patriotic platitude here]. So it is surprising to learn that the Chicago Times found the speech infuriating, and wrote that every American should be ashamed at the way that Lincoln had dishonored the dead at Gettysburg. Their objection was that, in their view, the cause for which the Union soldiers had died was the preservation of the Union, as defined in the slavery-endorsing Constitution; by citing instead the Declaration of Independence as the defining document, and by focusing on the idea that “all men are created equal,” which some in 1860 were calling “the great lie,” Lincoln was imposing his Republican and probably crypto-abolitionist views on the occasion.
The fact that we no longer hear anything noteworthy in Lincoln’s claim is the seal of his success: the ultimate triumph of an ideology is to be no longer perceived as ideological. In pursuing this goal, Lincoln erases any reference to the particulars that he might have been expected to mention: there is no North or South, no slavery or emancipation—he turns the Civil War from a conflict within a nation into a test whether “any nation so conceived” can survive. Lincoln, who had almost no schooling, was fascinated by Euclid’s Elements, and it is not an accident that he describes the principle of equality as a “proposition” (theorem). He treats the battle almost as a step in a geometrical proof, and exercises a remarkable emotional restraint in his language, which paradoxically heightens its emotional power.
It is always hard for me, in remembering the people from whom our government has asked the last full measure of devotion, to do the calculus and decide if it was worth the price. I do hope that, whenever we demand the sacrifice, it will be because the stakes are as high as they were in Lincoln’s vision of Gettysburg.
- If you want to imagine Lincoln delivering the speech, keep in mind that he had a Kentucky accent and a high-pitched voice that some found annoying but which carried well. (Lincoln’s closest 20th-century equivalent, FDR, also had a high-pitched voice).
- At the time, nobody would have understood “Gettysburg Address” to refer to Lincoln’s speech. The keynote speaker was Edward Everett, who was a famous orator and had made a specialty of battlefield commemorations. Everett’s oration lasted over two hours, and was considered an excellent performance. There was then a hymn, and brief remarks by the President.
- Did you know that the Emancipation Proclamation, when it went into effect, freed nobody? It was explicitly structured to apply only where it could not be enforced, in areas then under rebel control. Wills explains that Lincoln did not have the authority to do more: the Proclamation was an emergency military measure to deprive the rebels of their slave labor force (and encourage the slaves to volunterr for the Union). Of course, it was also politically expedient to avoid antagonizing slave states like Missouri and Kentucky.
- When Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as Confederate president, the band, not yet having a national anthem, played the Marseillaise. I find this inexpressibly weird.
- I referred above to universal equality, but I am aware that Jefferson and Lincoln only speak of equality for men. I don’t think Lincoln was any greater sinner than most in this respect, but he does seem to have been much more comfortable with guys; he always chose to spend weeks or months on the road touring with the circuit court rather than stay at home practicing in Sprihgfield (the circuit court had a kind of comradely all-male road-show feel), and the few love-letters that I have read make me think that he looked on women as scary aliens.