150 Years Ago: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
150 years ago, on November 19, 1863, the United States of America were in the midst of a bloody civil war that would test whether the American project would endure.
During the summer of 1963, the slave states of the Confederacy had gained the upper hand, or so it seemed.
Abraham Lincoln’s brief speech, held in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where just a few months earlier, a bloody battle had left thousands dead and many more wounded, addressed the question of America’s future as a nation.
It begins with a reminder that
[f]our score and seven years ago [eighty-seven years ago, in 1776,] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The ideal of liberty versus the historical reality
Historically, of course, there was a mismatch between the ideal of a new free nation and the reality for several segments of the population. In the beginning, liberty was something to be enjoyed by white, propertied men (“all men” meaning ‘not women’).
The expansion of white settlements across the continent entailed the genocide and marginalization of Native American peoples.
The existence of chattel slavery contradicted the national self-image of America as a bulwark of liberty, as was pointed out with cutting precision by abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, for instance in his brilliant 1852 speech “What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?,” held eleven years before Lincoln’s.
That said, the issue of slavery had become central to the continuing existence of American nation. And while Lincoln had not planned to abolish slavery altogether prior to the Civil War, but only to stop its expansion, as can be read in his 1861 inaugural address, abolition would come about as a consequence of the war.
Sacrifice for saving the ideal of American popular government
Lincoln does not directly talk about slavery in the Gettysburg Address. He instead emphasizes the sacrifices of soldiers for the cause of the nation. Still, he talks about a “new birth of freedom”:
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it [the improved cemetery on the battlefield] far above our poor power to add or detract. [. . .] 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. 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 [emphasis mine].
Lincoln appeals to the Union army by encouraging them to protect the American form of popular government, or at least the ideal of what it could be.
One and a half years later, in April of 1865, Lincoln was assassinated.
In retrospect, the Gettysburg Address is generally seen as a turning point in the Civil War and remains one of the most famous political speeches in American history (and with a length of only about two minutes, a really short one, as well).
Update [2013/11/20] Conservative outrage over Obama not using “under God” in reading of the Gettysburg Address
President Obama recited the Gettysburg Address as one of many public figures after being approached by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. As The Raw Story reports, he used an early version that did not yet include the words “under God,” as in the version I quoted further up in this blog post. Because of this, the conservative outrage machine has thrown a temper tantrum.
This nontroversy is of course ridiculous. Firstly, because Obama just did an accurate reading of one specific version that just does not contain those words. Secondly, because in a secular state like the U.S., there are no religious tests as a requirement for public office.
Despite all this, the social reality in today’s American politics is extremely contradictory to this fact. To be elected to political office, one basically has to pay lip service to being religious, and the right kind of religion at that. Protestant Christianity is the default, Catholicism and Judaism is also kind of okay by now, but Muslims are few and suspect, in particular since 2001. But none are more suspect than those who lack the ‘proper’ public displays of religiosity, regardless of context.
As a European who thinks that the separation of church and state was the most brilliant idea of the American Founding Fathers (European history is full of theocracies and religious wars), I facepalm.
Read, hear, and see more:
[Audio] “For Its 150th, A Reading Of The Gettysburg Address.” – Historian Eric Foner and NPR staff read the Gettysburg Address. (NPR, 2013/11/19)
[Audio] “A Reading of the Gettysburg Address.” – Actor Sam Waterston reads the Gettysburg Address. (NPR, 2003/11/13)
The full text of the Gettysburg Address at American Rhetoric.
“The Civil War: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” (C-SPAN, 2013/11/16)
“Filmmaker Burns celebrates Gettysburg Address.” (David Jackson, USA Today, 2013/11/18)
[Audio] “Putting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address In its Original Context.” (NPR, 2013/11/19) – Historian Eric Foner explains the Gettysburg Address in the larger context of the American Civil War.
“The Words That Remade America.” (Garry Wills, The Atlantic, 1992/06) – A 1992 essay by Pulitzer- Prize-winning author Gary Wills on the language of the Gettysburg Address.
[Video] The Gettysburg Address Animated (Maria Popova, Open Culture, 2010/11/04)
The fake controversy about Obama not saying “under God”:
“Conservatives flip out after Obama reads original Gettysburg Address without ‘under God’.” (David Edwards, The Raw Story, 2013/11/19)
“Right-Wing Noise Machine Fabricates Gettysburg Address Omission To Attack Obama.” (Tyler Hansen, Media Matters for America, 2013/11/19)
[Video] “Obama ‘One Nation Under God’ Controversy.” (TYT, 2013/11/13)
“New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll.” (Guy Gugliotta, New York, 2012/04/02)
“Statistical Summary America’s Major Wars.” (United States War Center via archive.org)
“Schnelles Gedenken: Gettysburg-Rede.” (Ulrike Rückert, Deutschlandfunk, 19.11.2013)