The Gettysburg Address for 2020

Posted on May 7, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

We’ve written about the Gettysburg Address before, and we feel it’s time to do so again. This famous speech by President Lincoln, delivered at the memorial of the Battle of Gettysburg, on one of the battle grounds, is so short that could fit on one side of an index card; just 12 lines on the NPS website devoted to it. Yet it is a magnificent and wide-ranging, all-encompassing call to this nation to never let the standard of liberty and justice for all fall from our hands, no matter what happens.

In these times, nearly eight score years after Lincoln delivered this moving message, we need the power and the pain of the Gettysburg Address to inspire us once again.

P.S. — see our post on the Harrisburg, PA newspaper’s famous dismissal of the GA as “silly remarks” for the full story on Why the Harrisburg Press hated the Gettysburg Address.

 

It shouldn’t be necessary to parse such a short text to fully comprehend its meaning; it shouldn’t even really be possible. But the Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by President Abraham Lincoln, packs a great deal of meaning into a very few words, and the fact that some of its phrases have become iconic, used liberally in everyday society, has actually blurred some of their meaning.  Let’s go through it, attempting to be as concise as the author was, but knowing we will fail [this article is many times longer than his speech]:

“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.”

–Yes, the first five words may be the most well-known; there’s probably no American alive today over the age of 5 who hasn’t heard those words, usually used in jest, or presented as impenetrable. It’s the one archaic rhetorical flourish Lincoln included. “Score” means 20, so the number is four times 20 plus seven, or 87 years ago. In 1863, that was, of course, 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was written and signed.

The important thing about that number and that date is how recent it was; just 87 years ago there had been no United States. Older adults in the crowd at Gettysburg had heard their parents’ stories about colonial days, and the Revolutionary War. Their grandparents might never have known independence. So the nation brought forth so recently, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, possessed all the vulnerability of youth. It was not a powerful entity that could be counted on to withstand a civil war, particularly one that amassed casualties such as those at the Battle of Gettysburg.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

–The point is reiterated: can the U.S. survive the war? But Lincoln’s real question is about the precarious state of world affairs that the U.S. Civil War represented. The U.S. was founded as a nation dedicated to personal and political liberty. The Confederacy that fought the war was fighting for slavery, the opposite of personal and political liberty, and there seemed to be a real possibility that other nations, primarily England and France, would join the war on the Confederate side. If the U.S. lost the war, the only attempt at real democracy, personal liberty, and equality on Earth would be no more, and there might never be another. The U.S. had the best chance at making it work; if the U.S. failed, who else could succeed? The worst fears of the Founders and of all patriotic Americans were realized in this war, and in losses like the ones at Gettysburg.

“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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

–This was a recent battlefield. The bodies were cleared away, but the landscape was devastated by three days of cannon and gunfire. This drawing purports to show the start of the battle:

Gettysburg

The soldiers are in a field surrounded by trees. Here is a photo from the day of the Address:

Yes, it’s now November instead of July, but the ground being completely stripped of vegetation is not the result of the onset of winter, and the lack of a single tree speaks volumes about the ferocity of the battle. There is a tree stump taken from the battlefield at Spotsylvania on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC that is all that’s left of a tall tree that was shot away to nothing by rifle fire during the fighting.

Gettysburg’s trees must have suffered the same fate. Under that stripped-bare ground many men from both sides were already hastily buried. There was a strong need on the part of the families of the dead, who could not travel to Pennsylvania to find and retrieve their bodies, to find some way to set this battlefield aside as sacred ground.

“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. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

–You can make the battlefield into a cemetery, but that action is not what makes the field sacred. It is the unselfish sacrifice of the U.S. dead, who fought to keep democracy and liberty alive in the world, that makes the land sacred–not just the land of the cemetery, but all lands of the United States. They are buried now in the cemetery, but they will live forever in the memory of the nation.

“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.”

–The “unfinished work” the soldiers were doing is the work of keeping democracy alive as well as the nation.

“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–“

—The last full measure of devotion” must be one of the most powerful ways to say “they gave their lives” ever conceived of. The U.S. soldiers buried here did not just die for a cause, they died because their faith in liberty was so devout that they put the life of their nation above their own lives.

“–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.”

–We tend to think that the last phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, must have appeared somewhere before this, in the Constitution or some Revolutionary War speech. It’s surprising that it had not. This was Lincoln’s own description, and it is simple and powerful. This final statement in the Address is far from a gentle benediction. It is a steely resolve to continue the fighting, continue the bloodshed, allow more men to die, and to dedicate more cemeteries to the war dead in order to guarantee that the United States will not perish and take freedom along with it. We “highly resolve” to continue the work of this war, knowing that it will not be easy and success is not assured. We do that today, in 2020, and every day that our founding principles are on the line and in danger from a world in which liberty and justice for all are not sacred ideals.

Delivering this final line, the president sat down. People in the audience were surprised. They had expected a longer speech–something more along the lines of the “translation” we’ve just provided, something more didactic that pounded points home over and over, and expressed its patriotism in more familiar, jingoistic language. Some felt insulted, and the press reviews were mixed: The Chicago Times said “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The local Harrisburg Patriot and Union said “…we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

Part of the problem was that the elder statesman of Massachusetts politics, Edward Everett, had spoken for over two hours in a much more conventional way before Lincoln. Technically, Everett was right to speak longer, as he was on the program to deliver an “oration” while the president was listed as giving only “dedicatory remarks”. It was an age of very long speeches, and the longer the speech, the more seriously the speaker was taken.

But there were many people who realized they had just heard an historic speech. We’ll close with the opinion of the reporter from the Providence Daily Journal who felt the same way we do today after he heard Lincoln speak: “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made…. It is often said that the hardest thing in the world is to make a five minute speech. But could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those few words of the President?”

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“The little speeches of President Lincoln”: why the Harrisburg press hated the Gettysburg Address

Posted on November 18, 2013. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to the follow-up on our post on the retraction made by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA, of its 1863 editorial blasting the Gettysburg Address. In it we will look at the entire editorial of Tuesday, November 24, 1863 that the modern paper has retracted, and which is famous for its panning of the Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks”.

It’s odd that no one—including ourselves, when we first included the paper’s remarks in our post on the Address—took a look at the full editorial. It’s not just another example of people expecting Lincoln to speak longer than he did. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union had a much bigger chip on its shoulder. Let’s read through it:

“A Voice from the Dead

We have read the oration of Mr. Everett. We have read the little speeches of President Lincoln, as reported for and published in his party press, and we have read the remarks of the Hon. Secretary of State, Wm. H. Seward, all delivered on the occasion of dedicating the National Cemetery, a plot of ground set apart for the burial of the dead who fell at Gettysburg in the memorable strife which occurred there between the forces of the Federal Government and the troops of the Confederacy of seceded States.”

—…”published in his party press”? Immediately you see two red flags that tell you the paper is anti-Lincoln. (1) they did not send a reporter to the ceremony to hear the speeches live, most likely (2) to avoid seeming to be part of the “party press”. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union was in fact staunchly Democratic, opposed to Lincoln and his “unnecessary” war to end slavery.

“To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.”

—Yes, the writers are Democrats. President Lincoln is a “jester” without sense, and the occasion of burying the dead at Gettysburg, or, really, the occasion of paying tribute to them, is a mockery. The whole dedication of the burying ground was just a PR stunt for Lincoln.

“We can readily conceive that the thousands who went there went as mourners, to view the burial place of their dead, to consecrate, so far as human agency could, the ground in which the slain heroes of the nation, standing in relationship to them of fathers, husbands, brothers, or connected by even remoter ties of marriage or consanguinity, were to be interred. To them the occasion was solemn; with them the motive was honest, earnest and honorable. But how was it with the chief actors in the pageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whose loins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?

They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief or elated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication.”

–It’s odd that the editorial here mimics the language of the Address so clearly in its first sentence up to “heroes of the nation”. Was it unconscious, or is it more mockery by the editorialists? Here they say the bereaved who gathered at Gettysburg because they lost loved ones were honorable, because their motive was honest, But the “chief actors in the pageant”—Lincoln and Everett—were hypocritical in their fake mourning because a) they had not lost anyone in the war, and b) the war itself is unjust, “begotten of their fanaticism and ruled by their whims”. Fanaticism over what, you might ask? They’re coming to that.

“We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and the liberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth. His oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy the occasion and the man.”

—This passage refers to Everett, former Senator from Massachusetts, who is basically good somehow (he was anti-slavery, which should not have appealed to Democrats at the time) but trapped in a lie—trying to dignify a war orchestrated by Lincoln and his party “for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth.”

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.

But the Secretary of State is a man of note. He it was who first fulminated the doctrine of the irrepressible conflict; and on the battle field and burial ground of Gettysburg he did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound, and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.”

—The first paragraph is the one everyone reads and quotes. But it is the second that really twists the knife. Did Everett somehow really say that the U.S. was fighting the war “to upset the Constitution”? Yes—because he said the U.S. was fighting to emancipate enslaved black Americans, which could only be done by enslaving white men “in the chains of despotism.” This was the standard proslavery argument: that freeing enslaved black Americans meant taking away white people’s right to rule. The Constitution did not uphold slavery in 1863; neither did it reject it. Slavery is the dark matter of the document, making sense of other statements about rights to property and voter representation. But the paper, like all proslavery Democrats, chose to say that ending slavery was unconstitutional.

“On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution of politics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the President himself, did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purpose of the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more ground than Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of the nation. The dead of Gettysburg will speak from their tombs; they will raise their voices against this great wickedness and implore our rulers to discard from their councils the folly which is destroying us, and return to the wise doctrines of the Fathers, to the pleadings of Christianity, to the compromises of the Constitution, which can alone save us. Let our rulers hearken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear a solemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, and to save the country from the misery and desolation which, under their present policy, is inevitable.”

—The editorialists make good on their resolve not to even talk about Lincoln’s Address—they are still hammering on Everett. Astoundingly, the writers say that the dead of Gettysburg—including the Union dead—will cry out from their graves to stop the war and  continue slavery (“the compromises of the Constitution”). To put proslavery words in the  mouths of men who died to end slavery and force the Confederate states back into a free union is beyond contemptible. If anyone desecrated the memory of the dead, it was the editorial writers of the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, not Edward Everett. If anyone was pushing partisanship ahead of patriotism, it was the writers. And if anyone was causing undue misery and desolation, it was the writers of the editorial who defamed the Union dead and pushed for the return of slavery.

We see now why the present day Patriot-News of Harrisburg sticks to the tiny, isolated paragraph about Lincoln, and makes a clearly untrue (or uninformed) excuse for the editorial by saying its writers were “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time”. No one was drunk, but they were certainly under the influence of partisanship. We still applaud the present-day paper for its retraction, but we wish it weren’t so partial, because that makes it a fillip, an interesting but unimportant “fascinating fact” that is quickly forgotten. If the paper had retracted its treasonous proslavery statements more lasting good would have been done. 

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Pennsylvania newspaper apologizes for blasting the Gettysburg Address

Posted on November 15, 2013. Filed under: Civil War, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

The devoted reader of the HP will remember our close-reading of the Gettysburg Address, which ended with this description of some of the reactions of members of the press to President Lincoln’s confusingly short speech:

“People in the audience were surprised. They had expected a longer speech—something more along the lines of the “translation” we’ve just provided, something more didactic that pounded points home over and over, and expressed its patriotism in more familiar, jingoistic language. Some felt insulted, and the press reviews were mixed: The Chicago Times said “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The local Harrisburg Patriot and Union said “…we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

We had to laugh at these no-thanks responses, and we idly wondered if the authors of these critiques ever came to regret them, given how justly famous the Address became. Well, our question is answered by the news that the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA has retracted its criticism (made when the paper was called the Harrisburg Patriot and Union).

The November 14 statement says:

“Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.

“We write today in reconsideration of ‘The Gettysburg Address,’ delivered by then-President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the greatest conflict seen on American soil. Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words ‘silly remarks,’ deserving ‘a veil of oblivion,’ apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.

“In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.

“The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record – but we must do as conscience demands:

“In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.” 

We at the HP think the imitation of the language of the Address, and the parallel brevity of the retraction, are a fitting tribute to the speech the paper once dismissed.

We also think this act is not just symbolic. The willingness, maturity of thought, and courage to reconsider one’s own history are often lacking in this world; worse, there are many who celebrate mistakes of judgment as independent thinking and “maverick” insight. And there are always those who will never admit error, and never apologize for distorting the truth and the historical record.

The men who wrote and edited the 1863 blast against Lincoln were not trying to distort the truth, but they were led by their prejudices to dismiss a powerful speech out of hand. They also had a view of the war that is entirely overlooked, and surprising to us today—more on that next post.

Next: “…this war  was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims”—the Harrisburg Patriot and Union hated far more than just the Gettysburg Address!

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