Reflections on the Gettysburg Address, Part I

WHATEVER ELSE MIGHT BE SAID in the end about the Civil War, this much remains: it was not our “historical sense,” nor was it the North, nor the South, that decided for us the meaning of that war; it was Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln alone. What do we as a people remember of the war, but that man? What do we as a people know of that war, but what he told us? Let it never be doubted what effect a single man can have on the courses of memory, even in such an historical age as our own. For us, Abraham Lincoln was the Civil War.
      But it is not Lincoln’s deeds that we remember and know so well; nay, it is his words; it is his words that consecrate that war, and dedicate it to a cause. As for the men who died – what are they, without this consecration and this dedication? In the North, some fought for plunder, and others for freedom, and others for Union; in the South, some fought for slavery, and others for honor, and others for the Constitution: who gave to these two aggregate sides a unified meaning? Who convinced us that the North, at bottom, fought for freedom, and the South, at bottom, fought for slavery? Who gave nobility to the one cause, and ignominy to the other? But this, all of this, belongs to Lincoln and to the words of Lincoln – words which the world took deep and lasting note of, and which it remembered long after the deeds of the soldiers in that war had perished to memory.
      Lincoln achieved this through his speeches. But what is distinctive to speeches is just this: they are words meant for the persuasion of a group. They are not written for one man, for his particular character, but for a host of men, and for what is held in common by that group. They are thus and must be rhetorical, or concerned with the effects of oral or written presentation. They are persuasive; they seek to render a given end; they seek to lead their listeners or readers into a given belief or into a given course of action. The speech is thus not at liberty to reveal the whole of the truth or of the author’s beliefs, because the speech must in nearly every situation speak to the prejudices and misconceptions of a group, and one to whom the author does not necessarily belong. To put it more bluntly, the speech lies. But the speech may be at liberty to lead to the truth, or at least to salutary lies; it may be at liberty, in other words, to persuade men, for tenuous but convincing reasons, to accept a given truth or good, or to act in a the service of that truth or good. Any speech thus contains in itself two different but fundamental questions: does the speech work in the service of truth or health, or of lies or sickness? And secondly: what is the means by which the speech persuades – where is the rhetoric to it, and how does it do its work? And naturally, the second question is not near so important as the first.

The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most famous of Lincoln’s speeches. Indeed, we do not go too far when we call it a founding document for this country, in the same way that we might call the Declaration of Independence such a document. Now, the Declaration of Independence was an apologia for a war. It was a document which concerned itself with the “Opinions of mankind”; which is to say, not their knowledge, but their belief. It was, in other words, a speech, which sought to justify the actions of America in the eyes of the world. In this justification, however, it became also a constituting document; and while the Constitution framed the government of the United States, the Declaration constituted the spirit. That is to say, it spoke for “We the People,” it created “We the People,” where before there had only been an aggregate. It gave a unity of belief to America, where before there had only been a unity of short-term purpose. Without this unity, without this creation of an American people, the Constitution could never have been accepted, and perhaps could never have been framed.
      What is important about the Declaration of Independence, then, is not the list of grievances against the King; these were rhetorical in purpose, and were intended for the opinions of mankind. What is important about the Declaration of Independence is the ideology which underlies these grievances and makes them grievances, as opposed to merely the expected and natural deeds of a ruler. This is to say, we were not fundamentally unified by our opposition to the King; we were fundamentally unified by the belief in our right to this opposition. It was this belief that the Declaration instilled in us. But for this belief, we would have been incapable of Republican government as the Federalists understood it.

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

So runs the famed first sentences of Lincoln’s Address. Before one asks anything else about these striking phrases, one must ask why the Civil War is a “test” as to the endurance of America. For it is surely true that, had the South seceded without conflict, America would not perforce have ceased to exist. Lincoln would have to admit that at least the North would remain as that nation. Moreover, the South would have adopted a constitution almost identical to the one from which it seceded, so that the South would also, it seems, have remained as this American nation. Why, then, would the secession of the South mark the end of our “new nation”?
      There are several considerations which must be taken up here. First, there is the question of what could have stopped the North from disintegrating, had it peaceably allowed the South to break away. What would have stopped other states from seceding, for perhaps very trivial reasons? But we must note here that what divided the North and the South can almost certainly not be reduced so much to mere political disagreements as to a essential difference in spirit. The surface dissimilarities between the South and the North hardly need enumeration; they are well known enough, and they are but the effects of the cause. There was something fundamentally different, that had perhaps been sown within the very Constitution in an attempt at unification, which separated the North from the South, and separated them in such a way that any lasting peaceable reconciliation was improbable to the highest degree. They were, to put this starkly, two different peoples living beneath two different regimes. Short of such a distinct and basic separation, it is difficult to conceive what would have caused them to divide. But then the question must be raised: what would have caused any further divisions in the Northern states? What difference can be found among them of so deep a cleft, as to divide them spiritually, so that they could have a will to be divided politically? This line of questioning seems to me to cast many doubts on the fear that the North (or, for that matter, the South) could not have continued as two distinct, unified, and internally coherent nations. To put this question otherwise: was not America as a unified nation originally formed by precisely such a secession as the South intended? – But then, in light of all this, it is likely that America would endure in the event of being split in half. She would, at worst, hold half as much territory. And at best, there would be two Americas.
      When the North initiated the war, however, these considerations disappeared behind a new and much more urgent question: would the South, if she won the war, tolerate the North to continue as a separate nation? Would the South rest content with having driven the Northerners back across the Mason-Dixie line, or would she herself drive past that line, and attempt to reunite the Union, but under her principles? And here we return to Lincoln’s speech. This must have been the fear which prompted Lincoln to call the Civil War a test of America’s endurance: that the South would have consumed the North; that the Union would become but a part of the Confederacy.
      But how does this justify Lincoln’s fear? He does not speak of Federal versus Confederate government in his speech; he does not mention the tension between state power and federal power. He mentions only two matters: “Liberty” and the “proposition that all men are created equal.” But did the South not altogether accept these principles? Was it not even the love of Liberty that induced at least the better Southerners to secede? Did not the South establish for itself a Constitution almost verbatim the same as the one it left behind, save principally for a more explicit treatment of slavery and a slight augmentation of the states’ sphere of influence? But here we come to it, here we find what seems to be the center of Lincoln’s argument: the war was not fought over the principles of liberty and the political equality of men; it was fought over the status of the Negro with regard to these principles; it was fought over the question of the Black man’s humanity. The North held that the Black man was a human, the South held that he was property, and was at the least unfit to be a citizen, if for no other reason than because he and his ancestry had been bred to servitude. The Negro’s right to liberty and his equality with other men depended entirely on the answer to this question. The Union was in danger because it stood at the brink of becoming universally a slave-holding nation. This is Lincoln’s appraisal of the Civil War; it was against this danger, the danger of universal Negro slavery, that Lincoln voices his fear and his undying words.
      This fear, however, is implicated fundamentally in the war, in the existence of the war. Had the war never begun – had the South been allowed to secede – the possibility of the Union becoming slave-holding would have been, in short, no possibility at all. We must then devolve upon the question of why Lincoln instigated the war – of why he provoked the Confederacy into a necessary and defensive aggression. The answer to this can be found in his first inaugural address:

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken; and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part; and I shall perform it, so far as practicable, unless my rightful Masters, the American People, shall withhold the requisite means, or, in some authoritative manner, direct the contrary. …
      …The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government.

He held secession to be un-Constitutional, and he bound himself to his oath to uphold the Constitution. More than that: he held that the great experiment of American liberalism was now hanging in the balance. Precisely because the Southerns were an altogether different people than the Northerners, their coexistence was laying the republican form of government on the line. If even these two peoples, in so many ways so similar to one another, could not find a way to inhabit one and the same land under one and the same form of government, then what would the Constitution be but a mistake? And so he could not allow the South to secede. Simultaneously, he could not, for reasons apparent, declare open war on the South. What was there to be done, then, but to force the South to fire the first shot of the war, by keeping troops in, and indeed fortifying, a military base located firmly in the territory of the Confederacy, but yet of ambiguous possession? Hence Fort Sumter, and hence the war.
      And once the war had begun, and there was no return, what could Lincoln do other than reach the logical conclusion of those principles which had begun the war?


Continue to Part II


  1. Jarvis - June 30, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

    You have a compelling article here, and particularly I like how you expressed the idea of speeches and rhetoric creating principled parties: “This is to say, we were not fundamentally unified by our opposition to the King; we were fundamentally unified by the belief in our right to this opposition. It was this belief that the Declaration instilled in us.” That is eloquently spoken; we thank you for it.

    My question is, which perhaps you will speak to in the forthcoming parts of your essay: how do you arrive at this proposition that Lincoln was concerned for the North’s ability to /exist at all/ in the face of the South? It is a bold assertion, and not an implication that is conventionally found in our analysis of history: wasn’t his upholding the Constitution enough motivation? Did he really believe, and was it motivating to him, that the North could not /survive/? We shall await your thoughts with much interest on this bold and provocative fold of history that you hold.

    • John Bruce Leonard - July 9, 2017 @ 11:20 am

      You ask a fine question indeed. In the second part of this essay (which I have just published) I consider the question of Lincoln’s famous defense of the Constitution—and find it wanting.

      Lincoln was well aware that there was in the United States of his epoch a fundamental difference in ethos between the North and the South, such that their coexistence remained dubious at best. The entire thrust of his House Divided speech, is nothing but inimitable expression of this awareness. Supposing then that two different peoples existed under a single government; supposing that, due to peculiarities of their ways of life, their customs, their ethoi, they could find no way to compromise, no way of persisting as a single nation, without the destruction or utter subversion of one or the other of their societies; supposing furthermore that matters at a certain historical juncture came to a head, such that one or the other of them determined to secede—from the point of view of simple statesmanship, what would stop the non-seceding side from merely permitting the scission, in awareness that this alone could peaceably resolve the conflict?

      Lincoln’s reply was that he had to defend the Union. But since that Union was already by his own reckoning a Disunion, he had to have recourse to ulterior arguments—ulterior even to the Constitution, as it was the Constitution which was, in a decisive respect, the object and not the arbiter of the argument. He never to my knowledge speaks of the dangers the North might have faced following a peaceful secession; yet it is impossible to believe that it was not on his mind. In his First Inaugural he says, “If a minority…will rather secede than acquiesce [to the will of a majority], they make a precedent which, in turn, will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such a minority.” Surely such logic applies mutatis mutandis as well to a majority which passively permits a minority to secede. The pith of his argument against secession is eminently practical (practical in a very high sense), not “Constitutional.” He could not make his real argument evident without showing the war for what it was: a conflict of the regime itself, in which no recourse could be had to law, because it was law itself that was being contested. He could not speak openly about this because it would legitimize the Southern claim that he was acting, not as a president, but as a tyrant, and it would contribute to the legal dissolution of the Union. He had to make it appear, to those who remained faithful to him and to posterity, that the Constitution maintained full vigor despite the challenge that had been made to it from within (for the Southerners, too, had their Constitutional arguments supporting the right to secede). And so he constructed arguments upon the Constitution to defend his position, and with such consummate skill that we today remember first and foremost these arguments, though they were always, to my mind, but “arguments after the fact.”

      I hope this addresses your question somewhat. If your doubt persists after you have read Part II, I will be happy to revisit this matter.

  2. Moriah - August 12, 2017 @ 9:27 pm

    Congressman Lincoln said: “Any people anywhere… have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right…” President Lincoln used unconstitutional measures to stop the South when they did this. He said he fought the Confederacy to save the Union. Lincoln did not save the Union, he damaged it. The founding fathers created a voluntary union of States. The only way to save it was to honor the South’s secession.
    In his Gettysburg address Lincoln said: “…this government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Calhoun said: “Without a full, practical recognition of the rights and sovereignty of the States, our union and liberty must perish.” When States lose their freedoms, we do too.

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