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At Gettysburg, What did Lincoln Mean?

At Gettysburg, What did Lincoln Mean?
By Eric Black

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.

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(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.

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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.