Monday, November 18, 2013

What the Gettysburg Address Means for America Today

Heather Cox Richardson

On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg. When the battered armies limped out of Pennsylvania after July’s brutal fight, they left behind them more than 7000 corpses in a town with fewer than 2500 inhabitants. With the heat of a summer sun beating down, getting the dead soldiers into the ground quickly was imperative. A local lawyer urged
Lincoln at Gettysburg, about three hours before he gave his address.
Washington to establish a national cemetery in the town, where the soldiers could be interred with dignity. Officials agreed, and the lawyer planned an elaborate dedication ceremony. The organizers invited state governors, members of Congress, and cabinet members to attend. They asked prominent orator Edward Everett to deliver the keynote address. And, almost as an afterthought, they asked President Lincoln to make a few remarks. While they probably thought he would not attend, or that if he came he would simply mouth a few platitudes and sit down, President Lincoln had something different in mind.

About 15,000 people gathered in Gettysburg for the ceremony. A program of music and prayers preceded Everett’s two-hour oration. Then, after another hymn, Lincoln got up to speak. Packed in the midst of a sea of frock coats, he began. In his high-pitched voice, he delivered a two-minute speech that redefined the nation.

President Lincoln reminded the American people what they were fighting for. He transformed into poetry the nation’s founding principles. While slave owners stood firm on the Constitution’s protection of property—including their slaves—Lincoln insisted that American stood for equality before the law. Dating the nation from the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, he insisted that America was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln’s argument was about far more than race. In his youth, Lincoln and his friends, poor men all, had seen fabulously wealthy slaveholders gain control over the government. They had shaped legislation that permitted them to make more and more money, and which took away opportunities for men just starting out. Increasingly, wealthy men insisted that their economic system, which had enabled them to amass fortunes previously unimaginable, was the right one, for most men were dull drudges who must be led by their betters. There was no point in letting them have the tools to rise, for giving them opportunities would only divert the resources rich men would use better. When slave owners overturned longstanding laws to enable them to move their economic system into the West, Lincoln believed the very fate of the nation was at stake. “[W]e are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether . . . any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

In the late 1850s Lincoln quit his law practice and threw his lot with the Republicans, a new political party that promised to keep the American government from falling under the control of rich men. Regular people must control the government, he thought, for only they would guarantee that laws would continue to enable every man to rise. Nothing was more important, the president told his listeners at Gettysburg, than continuing to fight so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Most northerners blessed Lincoln’s speech, but opponents howled at the idea that America stood for equality. Surely “the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes, and persons of African blood,” were not equal to white people, Lincoln’s own vice-president would later rant. Others echoed the slave owners who warned that, unless the rich controlled government, it would confiscate wealth. Poor men would want tax dollars used for schools and hospitals, and the bulk of tax money would come from wealthier members of society.

Nonetheless, Lincoln’s position was clear. “[W]e can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground,” he noted. “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.” For Lincoln, the lesson of Gettysburg was for those left behind. “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.”

Why does the Gettysburg Address still matter? With it, President Lincoln rededicated the nation to the principle of human equality, and to a government that reflected that equality by advancing the economic interests of all Americans. Now, as then, most Americans back Lincoln’s vision. And now, as then, there are those who oppose those principles for both racial and economic reasons.

Now, as then, we must grapple with the same questions Americans did in 1863: What does America stand for?

It is no fluke that Fun. used Civil War imagery in this brilliant video, or that it has had more than 86 million hits:

What do we stand for?


R.T. said...

The secret of why the Gettysburg Address still matters may have more to do with its singular brevity, simple diction, and laser-like focus on themes rather than on the themes themselves. That may be the unfortunate reality.

hcr said...

Spoken like a literature teacher!!!

I get your point, though.

Still, one of the brilliant things about this speech-- and indeed, many of his speeches-- is that he made them so general they can be anything to anyone. Rather like Shakespeare. We look into the well and see ourselves reflected back.

R.T. said...

Soon to be former literature teacher. I have already jettisoned most of discipline's literary theory, and I now try to approach texts with a simple, reader-response approach: I read, and I respond. This may not be academic rigor, but--what the hell--I'm retiring! Besides, most people who responded to the Gettysburg Address over the years are not academics. And, BTW, Lincoln was not an academic. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against academics. Hell, I have been one. I am just readjusting my perspective on everything that I read, including American history. I am just trying to keep it simple. I hope simplicity is welcomed here.

Randall said...

I've been curious about the "Americaness" of the address and the religious component. Several years back I used Robert Alter's Pen of Iron book for a course I taught on American religion. Alter has a very interesting take on the biblical, KJV, ordinary language used.

Here's Alter (pages 13-14):

We more typically remember Lincoln's speeches for their eloquence. Much of this, as I have suggested, is achieved through his intuitive feel for appropriate diction and rhythmic emphasis, manifested, most famously, in every phrase of the Gettysburg Address, as in the grand concluding sweep of 'we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,' moving on to the climactic anaphora, 'that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.' Only a single phrase in the Address is explicitly biblical, though one might argue that the very use of a language that is both plain and dignified, resonant in its very ordinariness, is in part inspired by the diction of the King James Version. Many people, I suspect, assume that the opening phrase, 'Four score and seven years ago,' is explicitly biblical, though in fact it is merely modeled on the 'three score and ten' of the King James Version, a phrase that, given the sacred status of the formulaic number seventy, appears 111 times in the 1611 translation. The Hebrew actually has no equivalent expression and simply says 'seventy,' as does Tyndale's translation, which was a principal source for the King James translators. . . .

hcr said...


I'm supposed to recite this in an hour, and I won't do it-- I will read it. That's because, when I got up this morning and went to practice the speech I've known
for decades, I began: "Our Father, Who art in Heaven...." The cadences are the same.

Eric Schultz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Schultz said...

I was able to walk in Lincoln's footsteps yesterday and attend the 150th commemoration today. Very moving and beautifully done. (The National Park Service--hurt by the recent sequestration--remains a jewel.) Jim McPherson and Sally Jewell offered excellent keynotes. Lauren Pyfer, high school junior, gave her winning "modern interpretation" of the Address and stole the day, though Justice Scalia was pitch perfect as well (before swearing in 16 new citizens). The biggest question in the crowd--in a year when the nation needs much binding and reminding: Why wasn't the President there?

Randall said...

That's interesting about Obama not being there. Wonder why?

Ha! I can see how that would be easy to mistake with the Lord's Prayer. Similar rhythm.

hcr said...

If he had gone, there would have been a field day for the hard right claiming he was making it all about himself, and the true meaning of the day would have been obscured (just look at the frenzy over the missing "under God" in the uncut version of the speech he recorded for Ken Burns-- although HE WAS READING THE NICOLAY VERSION THAT BURNS WANTED: the one without the words "under God!")

It was an important day for the nation, and, ironically, NOT going emphasized that by keeping focus on the speech, rather than putting it on the president.

I'm angry about it, though. As a political historian who knows this country's politics better than almost anyone, I am convinced that politics has gotten to insanity at this point, and it infuriates me. There is a frenzy over why the president didn't use the words "under God," at the same time there is yet another outright challenge to the Constitution in an attack on the president's right and duty to name judges. You don't have to like any president of any party, but when you start attacking the Constitution, it seems to me more worth paying attention to than whether or not the president used two words-- ones he uses all the time-- in a tape directed by one of the nation's strongest filmmakers.

Joe Reid said...

So well written, Professor Richardson.

Eric Schultz said...

Thanks, Professor Richardson! What the Licensed Battlefield Guides say is that Lincoln may have inserted "under God" extemporaneously during the Address after having toured the battlefield that morning-and especially visiting the place where his friend, General Reynolds, was killed. In any case, I thought Obama's written tribute (which was read aloud) resonated nicely with the audience and stood above the politics of the day. See

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I'm inclined to be cynical about idolizing characters from the past including Lincoln - just human like the rest of us - but these words, like Jefferson's (despite the fact that we know he meant men only, but not "All men") are transcendent and eternal questions that we need to continue to fight for today. And appending the "Fun" video gives me new appreciation for one of my son's favorite bands, which I can also be cynical about. My problem.