Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

At Gettysburg, What did Lincoln Mean?

Good Thursday morning, fellow seekers of wisdom and truth,

Today is the 146th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Or perhaps I should say that President Lincoln’s great speech was brought forth, upon this date, seven score and six years ago.

It’s amazing that Lincoln’s hauntingly poetical, breathtakingly brief remarks, dedicating a cemetery, have become, by many miles, the most famous speech in U.S. history.

I love to point out - by way of contrasting those times with these times - that Lincoln’s three paragraphs, written without a professional speechwriter (although Lincoln worked hard on the speech and had help, didn’t jot it down on the back of an envelope on the train up to Pennsylvania) was the only speech of any consequence that Lincoln gave during his entire presidency, other than his two inaugural addresses.

(If you’re wondering, between the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, the State of the Union message was a written document delivered to Congress, not a speech. And, although Lincoln was successfully re-elected in 1864, presidential candidates in those days did not make campaign speeches.)

Scholars of the speech often concentrate on Lincoln’s rhetorical decision, at Gettysburg, to base his justification for the Civil War on the promise of the Declaration of Independence, rather than anything in the Constitution. (Four score and seven years ago is a clear reference to 1776, not to 1789, and the reference to the “proposition that all men are created equal” is all Declarational, obviously not Constitutional, since the Constitution protected slavery and counted a slave as the equivalent of three-fifths of a person.)

I used to be puzzled by Lincoln’s claim that the Civil War was a war to test whether a nation like ours could “long endure.” Couldn’t the United States, at least the northern states, had endured without the southern states? I think it could have and would have and might well have thrived.

I used to really annoy people by suggesting that Lincoln’s insistence that states could not secede was illogical. The states joined the Union voluntarily; let’s say when they decided to ratify the Constitution in 1787-90. Why could some of them not reverse the process by unratifying it, as the Confederate States did, at special conventions called for that purpose? (The slavery issue complicates the morality of the question, but as a matter of history, the ratifications were the work of white male voters, just as the unratifications were.) You can get upset with me for “justifying” secession, as my friends have done over the years, but the argument isn’t that bad.

My mature understanding of Lincoln’s allusion to the Civil War as something that tested whether such a nation could “long endure” is something like this:

If we are going to have a democratically elected national government, even one that governs a federation of semi-sovereign states, the national government must be able to govern, at least in the areas of its delegated powers. If the states can opt out of the laws they don’t like or, especially, drop out of the entire country because of federal laws they don’t like, that democratic republican form of government cannot “long endure.”

Is this true? Is this absolutely true as a technical matter? I still don’t know. Since the 1860s, many other countries have created federations and subsequently broken them up. The United States was more than content to see the Soviet Union enter the dustbin of history, turning from one nation into 15. Yugoslavia. Czechoslovakia. The United States has actually fomented secessions (Panama from Colombia to help Teddy Roosevelt build the canal. In the Civil War itself, the North even welcomed the de facto secession of West Virginia from Virginia for Civil War reasons.)

 The list of secessions and secession movements is long and growing, but the analogies to the U.S.A. vs. the Confederate States of America are imperfect. The Czechs and Slovaks went their separate ways with a nice, peaceful vote and all seems to have gone well. The breakup of Yugoslavia a handful of ugly conflicts.

I get a headache trying to figure out what the rules should be. I don’t for a second doubt the sincerity of Lincoln’s conviction that the secessions he fought to prevent were vital to the experiment of democratic republicanism.

What do you think?

By the way, here's a strange, funny Minnesota connection to the great speech that I came upon reading Garry Wills’ “Lincoln At Gettysburg: The words that remade America.” Alexander Ramsey, who had been governor of the brand-new state of Minnesota when the war started and had been the first governor in the nation to send troops when Lincoln asked for them 1861 (and that regiment, the First Minnesota Volunteers, had fought and died heroically and in staggering numbers (82 percent of the regiment killed or wounded that day) at the battle of Gettysburg), wanted to attend the dedication of the battlefield. He left a week early, but in those days, and with the demands that the war imposed on the railroad system, Ramsey got stranded and missed the event and the big short speech by the great tall president.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Comments (11)

A thoughtful essay. But if this were indeed the 116th anniversary of the speech it would have been given in 1893 or 28 years after Lincoln's death. It is the 146th anniversary. Excuse the pettiness but we historians are great nitpickers.

Thanks for the knuckle-rap, George! This error has been fixed.

Dude, check you math, 5 score and 16 is only 116 years.

Thanks to you, too, Dean. The second math error followed from the first. Hope it's right now.

Lincoln WAS a politician, and he had a war to justify (things haven't changed a whole lot, have they ;-).
The threat to the integrity of the nation may have been more politically resonant than slavery as an issue.
And if States had the right to secede he wouldn't have much of a justification for the war other than the moral one that was not universally accepted even in the North (probably more in Britain, as a matter of fact).
So, the threat to the survival of the United States was then, as now, the most effective justification for the war.
And to grant him sincerity, it would be a reasonable conclusion that even if the United States survived the secession, it would be diminished in power, with a precedent set that might lead to further fragmentation which would be a real threat to survival: the west coast might end up going back to Mexico (or Russia), as might the southwest; the Northeast to Canada, leaving a rump federation of the MidWest.

The question EB raises was the essential point of contention not only in the Civil War buy in many of the years leading up to it.

The right of states to negate federal laws was the subject of dispute in issues such as the right to levy excise taxes and the right of the federal government to tax individuals. In these cases, the federal government had prevailed.

The right to secede was raised, I believe, by Vermonters. They did not in the end leave for Canada. But the whole question of the relation of the states to the federal government had been hotly argued over and over from the time of Jefferson. And it was this question that Lincoln felt had to be settled once and for all when the southern states not only chose to secede but took up arms against the union troops at Fort Sumter.

Lincoln long before the Emancipation Proclamation made it clear that if he had to leave slavery in place to save the union, he would do so. In his mind the ability to leave that union was the key issue. In the end, it was settled by force of arms, not reasoned debate: the union acted to preserve itself, and language changed from "the United States of America ARE" to "the United States of America IS."

More later. I have an appointment.

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

At the time, only one other modern nation had been "so conceived", ie "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

It was revolutionary France. When Lincoln spoke, France was an Empire and the US stood alone in the manner he defined us.

The possibility that we might meet a similar fate was not lost on many people at the time of our Civil War.

Just as all politics is local, it's also usually quite current.

"Lincoln at Gettsburg" is Garry Wills' analysis of the various influences (social, intellectual, religious, historic) that helped Lincoln become the man who could write that most elegant speech.

Excellent book.

It was undoubted a great speech. I carry a copy of it on my Blackberry and reread it when I’m bored.
However, I too think the cause of succession for the war was illogical. I can make a pretty good case that we should not have fought the war looking back on 140-plus years of grief given this country because of the continuing results of that war – racial hatred, the KKK, criminals of the old west, and even continuing today when redneck southern policy constantly keeps this country behind the times in terms of human rights, workers’ rights and international respect. The blues, jazz, barbecue, To Catch a Mockingbird and the Emerald Coast don’t make up for the hatred by tens of thousands of hillbillies who still fly the Stars and Bars seven generations after the end of the war.

When the Constitution was being formulated, the thireen states related to the federal government under the Articles of Confederation, where each state retained its sovereign status, and all federal transactions had to proceed through them.

This arrangement had proven to be woefully inadequate, leaving the congress as a relatively powerless discussion group able only to make requests and recommendations to the states.

In more cases than not, the states ignored those requests when it suited them, leaving the army without provisions, adequate soldiers, or unified direction (except for George Washington's personal status).

In particular, it left the federal government without adequate means of funding itself, with the result that its paper money ("Continentals") became so worthless that a saying arose: "Not worth a Continental."

The states preferred it this way. If a tariff was to be imposed, the states with high imports took the money, and often did not forward it to the feds. If a federal law did not sit well for their area, they ignored it. But they were unhappy when federal laws that benefitted them were ignored by other states not so affected.

When the framers of the Constitution were at their work, it was in the context of this situation that they held their discussions. While they could not muster enough strength to straight out challenge the sovereignty of the states, they could and did hem it in with various provisions that did just that.

In order to make the point that the Constitution did not depend on the states, they provided that in each state it would be ratified by the citizens themselves, who would elect representatives to a state convention (separate from the elected state legislatures) who would vote to ratify the Constitution or not. And not all states would have to ratify to put it in force: only nine states would suffice to make it law binding on all thirteen.

State legislators and governors were well aware of the limits that would be imposed on their "sovereignty" and were some of the most vocal critics of the Constitution. But they lost, and we had a new, stronger, national government not subject to the will and unanimous consent of the various states which the Articles of Confederation had imposed.

However, recognizing the need for the new "rules of the game" none of the original 13 states withdrew from the union. But the deliberate ambiguity of the Constitution regarding states rights was,at the insistence of states righters, clarified to some extent by the tenth amendment:"The Powers not delegated...are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

The trump card for those arguing that states did not have the right to secede would be found in Article six: "...and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states shall be bound by oath to support this constitution..."

To Abraham Lincoln the action of the southern states to secede and to take up arms constituted a violation of this article, and of the oath it required, and constituted a "rebellion" covered in other parts of the Constitution, and full justification of the federal government's military intervention to preserve itself.

It is significant that in the North the civil war was seen as about the "rebellion" and in the South as the "war between the states."

Had the North not won, Article Six would have been abrogated, the Constitution invalidated, and the end of the United States of America which it established would have ensued. Perhaps a new union in the North might have followed, but the United States of America would have been defunct.

And that government "of the People, for the People, and by the People" would in fact have "perished from the earth".

So, sorry, EB: it seems to me the Constitution itself rejects the states rights argument you describe.

I also believe Lincoln and others were concerned about the electoral part of all this. If we hold a legitimate election, can the losers simply leave because they don't like the results?

Southerners knew they could still hold some power for several years--but Lincoln's election showed them that the nation was changing demographically and they were in serious long-term trouble.

So it was that November election result that put the secession process into motion. To Lincoln, however, this was a big part of a democracy. He was rightfully elected--the process had worked and the Southerners/Democrats lost. If they are allowed to leave because they didn't like the people's choice, democracy would not be able to survive.