Thoughts on the Gettysburg Address


A Gettysburg Address article in this morning’s Frederick News Post caught my attention.

It’s written by an AP writer, Hillel Italie, who appears to be a somewhat partisan political writer for AP and other publications. That said, he does a decent job of covering some of the issues surrounding the speech and I believe the article is worth consideration.

One part that I focused on right away is concerning Lincoln’s evolving views on the war:

Lincoln’s reasons for fighting the Civil War were steadily evolving. By Gettysburg, the original goal of preserving the union had been displaced by the profound and politically risky statement that democracy itself rested upon “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Slavery and the doctrine of states’ rights would not hold in the “more perfect union” of Lincoln’s vision.

Rather than evolving reasons, I would say Lincoln was simply pragmatic in his approach to winning the war. As he clearly articulated early on in his presidency, he was willing to do whatever was necessary to win the war thus preserving the Union. He said he would free the slaves if it that will preserve the Union and he would not free the slaves if that will preserve the Union.

What had happened by September 1862 (the time of the battle of Antietam) is that Lincoln had come to the realization that he must consolidate his political power among the factions in the northern states which included those opposed to the war (Copperheads), abolitionists and supporters of Lincoln’s approach to the war. The first year of the war had gone very badly for the Union. In the eastern theater (Northern Virginia), the Union Army had lost almost every major battle. Support for the war was quickly eroding and the Copperheads were gaining momentum heading toward the mid-term elections of 1862. Abolitionists were angry that Lincoln did not move to free the slaves and make abolition one of the major war aims. Lincoln knew his only hope for breaking the growing power of the Copperheads was to bring the abolitionists into his camp.

Thus, by the summer of 1862, Lincoln already started a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. He then waited for a Union battlefield victory to issue the proclamation so it would not seem an act of desperation but a deliberate action to further clarify his war aims. The Emancipation Proclamation which became effective on January 1, 1863, only freed slaves in the states currently in rebellion and it would take the 13thAmendment, passed near the end of war, to totally abolish slavery in the United States. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3.1863), freeing the slaves had become a conduit to winning the war and preserving the Union.

The larger point that emerges in this article is “the doctrine of states’ rights” which Italie clearly identifies as a casualty of Lincoln’s war. While the Constitution never codified or endorsed slavery, it does, in a very purposeful manner, enshrine the concept of the limit power of the federal government. In my opinion, the most significant impact of Lincoln’s approach to the war was the manner in which he set aside parts of the Constitution in order to prosecute the war. Ironically, there is no mention in the Constitution of a method for a state to exit the Union, but there is also no prohibition for state to leave. Italie’s article addresses this issue:

“Up to the Civil War ‘the United States’ was invariably a plural noun: ‘The United States are a free country.’ After Gettysburg it became a singular: ‘The United States is a free country,'” Wills wrote. “This was a result of the whole mode of thinking that Lincoln expressed in his acts as well as his words, making union not a mystical hope but a constitutional reality.”
[Quoted from Garry Wills, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lincoln at Gettysburg”]

At the beginning of his presidency, Lincoln approached the problem of states leaving the Union by declaring a constitutional prohibition against it. Yet, this was nothing more than a “mystical hope” ungrounded in the reality of the Constitution. Returning to the Gettysburg Address itself, the singular nature of the “United States” is clearly laid out in the last line of the speech.

… 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 freeing of the slaves (…the proposition that all men are created equal.) was only a means to an end for Lincoln. This is not a commentary on Lincoln’s view of slavery as a moral issue but more of an ordering of priorities driven by the realities of secession. By the time of the Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, Lincoln plainly knew that he was guiding the United States toward a “new birth” that would forever change the governmental construct. The federal government had been created by the states which pre-existed the national government and remained supreme less those powers specifically given to the federal government by the Constitution. Only by changing this view of the United States as a nation, thus changing that balance of power, could Lincoln justify the war and make it, first and foremost, a struggle to preserve the Union.

In my opinion, the address remains an amazing literary example of taking a complex set of issues and weaving them into a concise and coherent message that would stand the test of time. Italie cities Willis again as an example of this:

Wills noted that the Gettysburg Address came at a time of great technological change, when communication was hastened by the rise of the telegraph, an innovation that demanded concise language…

Rather than being a dumb rail splitter as many of his opponents often dubbed him, Lincoln knew that the public would “little note nor long remember what we say here” if it was delivered as a two-hour speech such as the key note address given that day by Edward Everett. I believe he was a man ahead of his time with respect to the packaging and delivery of his message. Sadly, political leaders today run away from this style using either sound bites which fail to deliver a coherent message or long, boring policy speeches that ignore the need to be concise.

Just my thoughts on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address..

…and, with consideration to his writing style, I think Oliver Case would have been pleased with Mr. Lincoln’s speech!



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