One-hundred fifty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln stood before a crowd of journalists, soldiers, citizens, and statesmen in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and delivered perhaps the most famous speech in the English language.
Viewed in context of the Civil War in 1863, with the horrific bloodletting of the battle of Gettysburg in the rearview mirror but the prospect of countless recurrences in the near future, it is easy to see why Lincoln’s simple statement of faith in the fundamental American creed was so important to the Americans listening to him that day in choosing whether or not they would continue the fight.
Although Lincoln stated during the speech that the “world would little note, nor long remember” what was said that day, Charles Sumner, a Republican senator from Massachusetts, said, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
The Gettysburg Address, though it contained just 273 words and was delivered in less than three minutes, has loomed large in the minds of Americans ever since. It has endured because it was tied to the “eternal truths” of the Founding. The Address continues to provide both an inspiration and a clarion call for Americans in times when human liberty is at stake and great sacrifice is potentially necessary.
Though the main event of the day–a memorized, two-hour speech by Massachusetts statesmen and famed orator, Edward Everett–was what most observers had showed up to see, Lincoln’s remarks succinctly captured the American principles most associated with Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Revolution. These values are directly linked to what some modern Americans would call “American exceptionalism.”
In an 1859 letter intended to be read at a birthday celebration for Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence in Boston, Massachusetts, Lincoln explained how Jefferson “had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Lincoln continued, “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.”
Lincoln said of Jefferson’s principles that they “shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” Lincoln pitted his ideas of individual liberty and fundamental, as opposed to material, equality against a challenge from ideas that would largely shape the creed of many of the worst regimes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Intellectual revolutions had been sweeping Europe and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, and Lincoln explained how they were opposed to the American experiment in liberty. He said, “These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect–supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy.”
So, in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln called for a “new birth of freedom,” for the country to rally behind universal principles that he had expounded for decades before: of individual liberty, equality of opportunity, and the simple idea that individuals had a natural right to their own labor.
These principles were in contrast to a militant pro-slavery philosophy that became dominant in the 1850’s and were the principles that Lincoln referred to when he said at his 1858 presidential nomination by the Republican Party: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”
When recalling the American Revolution in the twilight of his life, Thomas Jefferson said that its ideas would spread:
…the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
However, by the 1860’s, new philosophies began to supplant the old-fashioned American doctrines.
George Fitzhugh, a radical Southern pro-slavery advocate that had deep ties to French socialists and once called the Southern plantation the “beau ideal of Communism,” turned Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s principles on their head. He wrote that most people were indeed “born with saddles on their backs and others booted and spurred to ride them, and the riding does them good.”
Fitzhugh and others in his school of thought advocated for a vast increase in the power of government, and a large, all-encompassing welfare state that would work with Southern plantation owners to care for their slaves and, perhaps in the near future, Northern workers as well. He believed that individuals had “no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society; and that society may make any use of him that will redound to the public good.”
Fitzhugh had a tremendous amount of impact on elite Southern intellectuals in his day, and in many ways saw beyond the national struggle between freedom and slavery in the United States. One of the great antebellum slavery historians, Eugene Genovese, said, “Fitzhugh insisted that all labor, not merely black, had to be enslaved and that the world must become all slave or all free.”
Though the United States was freed from the grip of slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War, the world was not, and there was a long, slow retreat for those that believed in individual liberty and limited-government as the 20th century neared its mid-point.
The idea that individuals owned the right to their own labor became quaint to intellectuals, and many thought a collectivized age was on an unstoppable path. The era of government ownership and technocratic management had arrived, and the world eventually became divided, half under the orbit of authoritarian doctrines, the other half free, and the half that was free seemed to be teetering.
But those who believed in the eternal truths of the Founding Fathers, in the doctrine that men were created free and equal, drew a line and took a stand for those truths and for free society.
Ronald Reagan, defeated by incumbent President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primary, came on the stage at the convention in Kansas City to make a concession speech in what many thought would be the end of his career in politics.
The Great Communicator explained how he had been given the task of putting a message in a time capsule to be opened 100 years later.
Reagan said that he would write of the domestic challenges confronting the nation, “the erosion of freedom taken place under Democratic rule in this country, the invasion of private rights, the controls and restrictions on the vitality of the great free economy that we enjoy.”
He then said he would also write about the Cold War and how the two powerful civilizations, based on opposite principles, were pitted against and aiming nuclear missiles at each other.
Reagan said of those who would open the capsule 100 years later:
Will they look back with appreciation and say, “Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom? Who kept us now a hundred years later free? Who kept our world from nuclear destruction?” And if we fail they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.
When Reagan re-emerged in 1980 and took the presidency, he did not back down from the conflict between free and communist society.
In his 1983 “evil empire” speech, in which he quoted Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexis de Tocqueville–who is given credit for first describing American exceptionalism–Reagan said of the Soviet Union, “They preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world…”
This gave those living behind the Iron Curtain great hope that the leader of the free world would stand for universal principles of freedom and human liberty.
Steven F. Hayward wrote in The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution that a CIA memo noted, “By describing the Soviet Union as ‘the focus of evil,’ President Reagan has single-handedly deployed the one weapon for which the Soviets lack even a rudimentary defense: truth.”
The Iron Curtain, long assumed to be insurmountable by both parties in Washington, collapsed just a year after Reagan left the Oval Office. A society based on principles that denied the individual rights of citizens and attempted to control the efforts of his labor imploded, and free society triumphed.
A century and a half later, Americans look back and remember Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, which elegantly reminds the country of the simple truths upon which our nation is founded. Lincoln’s words explain the incredible sacrifice of patriots, who died so that a nation of, by, and for the people would endure.