The memory of the Gettysburg Address–like the Battle of Gettysburg, like the Civil War itself–has become a sort of all-purpose, all-American occasion for fuzzy feel-good patriotism. And that’s probably how it should be, because nations thrive only when they have common memories and shared values.
Yet for those who are interested in the actual history, the truth is a bit sharper.
How so? For one thing, Lincoln delivered the address in the middle of a war that was far from over. On the very day that Lincoln spoke, on November 19, 1863, Grays and Blues were engaged in the Siege of Knoxville, and, in just a few days, Gen. Grant would begin his successful campaign to drive the Confederates out of Chattanooga.
Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg for three specific reasons: First, he intended, for purposes of morale-building, to commemorate the Union victory on that battlefield four months previously; second, he wished to pay tribute to those who had fought (of the 93,000 Northern troops, nearly a quarter were killed, wounded, or missing); third, and perhaps most importantly, as a Union victory loomed into prospect, he sought to shape post-war politics. In particular, he desired to establish, forever, the idea that the United States would be a unitary nation, not just a collection of states.
So now we might take a close look at the actual words of the address–still stunning in its brevity and concision. Lincoln’s address will live forever–as politics, as well as rhetoric–but let us offer some annotations. Lincoln’s words appear in italics, followed by Hamilton’s notes and commentary.
Fourscore 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.
Lincoln’s first sentence is a double gong to our mystic chords of memory–drawing from both the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Psalm 90, Verse 10, in the King James Version–the text that Lincoln was familiar with–reads, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” Like any smart political leader, Lincoln was wise to anchoring his speech in Biblical cadences.
And the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, of course, reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Civil War had begun as a dispute over politics and sovereignty, federal vs. states. But after the Emancipation Proclamation, the conflict took on a higher purpose; abolition became Lincoln’s policy. In citing those words from the Declaration, Lincoln made it plain: The American ideal of liberty for all was simply incompatible with slavery.
It’s also worth remembering that in saying “fourscore and seven,” Lincoln was counting back 87 years, to 1776, the year of the Declaration. As we know, the US Constitution was not ratified until 1789; that was the year that the United States became “official.”
Yet profound as it was, the Constitution, as originally written, was a flawed document: It made room for slavery. Indeed, even though slaves couldn’t vote, they were still counted as persons for the purposes of the census and for Congressional apportionment. More precisely, each person “bound to service” was counted as three-fifths of a person. Happily, both slavery and the three-fifths rule were amended out of existence by the 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865.
Yet in the meantime, Lincoln shrewdly chose the Declaration as his benchmark. The idea of “all men created equal” was the most inspiring possible goal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
That was the question: To the North, it was a civil war–that is, an internal rebellion to be put down, just as President Washington had suppressed, say, the Whiskey Rebellion.
To the South, the struggle was different: It was a war between two nations, USA and CSA. In the minds of Jefferson Davis and his Confederates, Southerners were simply making a choice to leave a Union that they had voluntarily joined in the first place. And if they could voluntarily join, it followed that they could voluntarily un-join.
In the 1860s, this was an honest debate, although, of course, it was poisoned by the issue of slavery, which turned a dispute over sovereignty into a moral crusade. And it wasn’t just a crusade in the US, it was a crusade around the Christian world–which opens up the question as to how long slavery could have lasted in Dixie had the South won the war. The answer: probably no more than a few decades.
We are met on a great battlefield 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 the nation might live.
In stipulating, “those who here gave their lives that the nation might live,” Lincoln is paying tribute to Northern soldiers–only. Yet at the same time, throughout the address, Lincoln makes no specific reference to the South, or to the act of rebellion. And this was genius, because nothing in the text can be read as an insult to Southerners.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
Here we see the characteristic modesty of Lincoln; the word “I” does not appear in the text. Moreover, as signaled by his words, “in a larger sense,” Lincoln was speaking to the future of American politics, and to future historians.
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.
In Lincoln’s mind, that noble advancement was the defeat of the South. After the war, there would come a time for reconciliation–“with malice toward none,” as Lincoln would say 16 months later, in this Second Inaugural Address. Yet in the meantime, Gettysburg was only a way station; it was not the destination.
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 phrase “a new birth of freedom,” of course, rings in our hearts to this day. Yet we might note that this “new birth,” during the Civil War, would thus supersede the “old birth,” derived from the Constitution.
These words were meant as a clarion call to action: We must finish the mission. And Lincoln invokes the Almighty as the Great Witness to the United States of America’s martial efforts.
We might note that the idea of a united and purposeful nation was not just a politico-military idea; it was also an economic idea. Lincoln, as a Republican in the Whig tradition, was all in favor not only of national liberty, but also of national economic development. To him, the two were inseparable; after all, since the South had the better generals, the North prevailed in the Civil War only because it had the superior industrial and technological capacity.
The United States consisted of 34 states at the beginning of the Civil War. Yet as 11 Southern states had seceded, Lincoln still kept his mind on economic development for the nation as a whole. Even before the Union was reunited in 1865, the Sixteenth President had put forth bold plans for strengthening the nation and filling out the North American continent. For example, he launched the Transcontinental Railroad in 1862, aimed at connecting Iowa to California–and, at the same time, tracing through some 1700 miles of territory that were yet to be states. When the railroad was completed in 1869, the Union had grown to 37 states, all of them better off because of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Yes, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address deserves to be remembered as one of the great masterpieces of political persuasion. But it also deserves to be remembered in the context of its time–as an agenda for military, political, and economic action.