Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reexamining Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

President Abraham Lincoln delivered his "Gettysburg Address" 150 years ago on this date, November 19, 1863, nearly 5 months after Robert E. Lee's army left that famous field in defeat. About 15,000 people were in attendance to hear the president speak. The speech, only 2 minutes in length, is by far his greatest, and one of the most beloved in American history.1 

But is the oration really what it seems to be? Have we become so familiar with those oft-quoted lines that we lose sight of its real message? Here are some poignant observations on Lincoln's most famous speech, published in 1922 by the American journalist and essayist, H.L. Mencken:
The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history... It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.
While Lincoln ostensibly spoke to honor the thousands of Federal troops who fell on that horrific battlefield, his speech actually recast their fight against the South as, ironically, a struggle for freedom.2  In doing so he co-opted the South's war cry and, more significantly, sounded the death knell for state sovereignty. In that brief moment, states' rights were conceded to an emerging and powerful federal government unknown in American history. This monumental shift was, in Lincoln’s own words, "the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced… that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion." It really is superb rhetoric—and also a masterstroke for authoritarian central government. His address foretold the erosion of political and social freedoms for generations of Americans to come.

Source: Gettysburg National Military Park Website

President Barack Obama was invited to speak today at the Gettysburg National Military Park on this 150th anniversary of Lincoln's famous address. But he decided to take a pass instead. Many Americans on both political sides read his decision as a snub. After all, they reason, Obama frequently has embraced the ideals of the great Emancipator President. At his first inauguration, Obama chose to be sworn into office with his hand on Lincoln's Bible. When he declared his candidacy for president, Obama chose the very spot in Springfield, Illinois where Lincoln announced his. More importantly, as the nation's first African-American president, there certainly would have been some profound symbolism if he had chosen to speak at Gettysburg this year. But he decided to decline, and maybe he had good reason.

Perhaps President Obama saw the invitation as a no-win situation. On one political side, honest philosophical disagreement with Lincoln's ideals yet resides among many who carefully exegete the president's meaning in 1863. Most in this camp would like to see the reversal of massive Federal encroachment into self-government and personal choice. On the other hand, Obama is losing ground among his own party faithful because of his heavy-handed implementation, "for the people," of a national healthcare program that fewer and fewer Americans really want.

Lincoln's call for a more dominant Federal government was certainly no more favorable a topic among the general population in 1863 as it is today. In Obama's current battle to force the reach of a leviathan government into American's personal lives, he is seeing his popularity slide, much as Lincoln experienced while waging his Civil War against Southern Americans. Where President Lincoln succeeded was in adjusting his own unpopular ideas to something 19th century Americans were ready to hear. A masterful rhetorician, in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was able to strengthen Northern support for his war on the South by transforming the conflict into a fight for freedom and self-determination. It remains to be seen whether the current president has the rhetoric or integrity required to similarly succeed in implementing his Federal vision. Right now, it doesn't seem he can.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, and many of his political descendants today are proud to point out that fact. But perhaps Lincoln's Grand Old Party faithful ought to re-examine his celebrated address more closely... and weep for the founding freedoms he sought to destroy.

1 Read the entire text of Lincoln's address and see other interesting information at the Library of Congress website.
2 The Gettysburg National Military Park website seems to agree. The lead caption refers to that battle and Lincoln's legendary address as "A New Birth of Freedom."

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