What did Lincoln argue at Gettysburg?

MinnPost’s Beth Hawkins put up an interesting piece Tuesday, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, outlining the arguments about how President Lincoln’s speech should be taught in public schools. I took it as a welcome tour of the unwelcome battle over who gets to decide how our teachers should be required to indoctrinate our children on the sacred texts of U.S. history.

I (and even my kids) are out of high school and relatively free to think such thoughts as we may about such matters. In my dotage I’ve often been struck by the mystery of what Mr. Lincoln was arguing in his very brief secondary remarks (the main speech by  pastor/politician/orator Edward Everett lasted two hours) at the dedication of a cemetery to the fallen soldiers from the bloody and crucial battle of Gettysburg.

Lincoln’s talk lasted just a few minutes and was panned by some of the early reviewers, at least one of whom has recently apologized. And Lincoln definitely got one thing wrong, when he said: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

In fact, what he said there has become the most famous speech in U.S. history.

It’s hard not to love the poetry of the address, and there’s no reason to try. It’s also hard to look at such a revered speech with fresh eyes. But, other than honoring the fallen (including many Minnesotans who had fought heroically at that battle) and pledging to keep trying to win the Civil War, it’s hard to figure out the argument hidden within the poetry. It seems to be something like this:

Four score and seven equals 87 years, which leads to 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, which is what Lincoln refers to when he says that a new nation was “brought forth, upon this continent, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

That “all men are created equal” was the first of the “self-evident” truths that Thomas Jefferson summarized in the second paragraph of the Declaration. Slavery, it seems obvious to us now, should have no place in a nation dedicated to that proposition. And yet it wasn’t obvious then. For 87 years after a new nation was conceived and dedicated to that proposition, slavery had continued, even after it had been abolished in much of the rest of the world.

The Civil War, Lincoln said, is a test of “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” So perhaps that translates as: A nation dedicated to liberty and equality cannot indefinitely remain the last bastion of legalized human slavery.

Some problems

I like the sentiment, but there are problems.

Obviously, in 1863, the slaveholders of the South didn’t accept that the Declaration required an end to slavery. The Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder with conflicted feelings about the institution. The southern states that had ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787-88 would never had done so if they had believed that it foretold a future without slavery. The slave state delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 went to lengths to insert and insist upon constitutional provisions that perpetuated the rights of slaveowners.

In 1858, as a Senate candidate in Illinois, Lincoln had said that:

I have said a hundred times, and I have now no inclination to take it back, that I believe there is no right, and ought to be no inclination in the people of the free States to enter into the slave States, and interfere with the question of slavery at all.

Lincoln had not run for president in 1860 as an abolitionist (and, in fact, no abolitionist could have been nominated or elected). Until briefly before the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln had always insisted that the Constitution included no power for the federal government to abolish slavery in the states where it had long existed.

Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 1863
Photo by Alexander GardnerAbraham Lincoln, Nov. 1863

But Lincoln had been on board with the general Republican Party position that no more slave states should be admitted to the union, and that the belief that by this means slavery could be put onto a “path of ultimate extinction.”

Lincoln had said from the beginning of the war that it was not about slavery but about secession. At Gettysburg, he said that winning the war was necessary so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Even this was not an argument about slavery but about Lincoln’s belief that a democratic nation could not survive if portions of the nation have the right to secede over political differences.

But just before the passage about government of, by and for the people, Lincoln said that the cause for which the dead soldiers buried nearby had given “the last full measure of devotion” had been to “give … this nation, under God, … a new birth of freedom.” Surely the new birth of freedom meant the end of slavery. The Civil War years had changed the North, abolitionism was no longer a radical, politically suicidal premise, and, although Lincoln had still not come out in favoring of abolishing slavery, by the time of Gettysburg he was heading that way.

Emancipation Proclamation

Less than a year before Gettysburg, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which certainly moved slavery closer to extinction. But he justified the proclamation as a war measure, necessary to weaken the rebel states. It left slavery legal in the slave states that had not seceded and Lincoln had warned the Confederate states that it was coming, attached to an offer to allow those states to keep their slavery if they would end the rebellion. None had taken him up on the offer.

That was the legal state of play when he went to Gettysburg and, technically, it was the same after he spoke.

But his argument at Gettysburg — not technical nor legal nor easily reconcilable with history or his own past statements, but moral and perhaps reflecting how the war had changed him — was that the words put into the Declaration by Jefferson had contained a time bomb. Whatever those words had meant to those who read them in 1776, and however many times Lincoln had tried to convince the South that they had nothing to fear from him, “all men are created equal” in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence now meant that slavery ultimately had to end. And that the time for its end was drawing nigh.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/20/2013 - 11:59 am.

    Most republicans wrestle with the dichotomy

    of being strong supporters of individual liberty … the very antithesis of slavery, while on the other hand being federalists and staunch supporters of the 10th Amendment and states rights. Lincoln not only faced this dilemma, but chose to fight a civil war over his decision.

    On issues of gay marriage, legalized marijuana or abortion, for example, even if a conservative opposes those things personally, they generally accept the idea that under the 10th Amendment, each state has the right to pass laws on “… th[ose] powers not delegated to the United States…”

    A conservative would be happy if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, for example and returned the power to legalize abortions to each state. To a devotee of free markets and consumer choice, the beauty of the 10th Amendment is that it gives the citizenry the ability to choose to leave a state with which it disagrees and move to states whose government is more to his liking.

    Southern republicans will insist that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about states rights. And they sometimes get a receptive ear from northern republicans when they make that argument.

    I think Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was the manifestation of the internal debate that he was having with himself and his explanation to the nation of why he decided to do what he did.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/20/2013 - 02:13 pm.

      The full 10th amendment

      The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

      Of course, the confederacy of Lincoln’s time hid the right to own other human beings under the cover of state’s rights, just as the ‘right’ to discriminate and to dictate to others how to live their lives hides under that same cover today.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/20/2013 - 04:08 pm.

    Lincoln evolved

    The answer to your question, Eric, is that Lincoln evolved through the war and came to believe more that the War was about putting an end to slavery and also coming up with ways to ensure that former slaves would really be free and equal under the law. I’ve been reading historian Eric Foner’s “Short History of Reconstruction” a book I would commend to anyone who, for example, thinks Reconstruction was some misguided episode in our nation’s history or wonders why Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson. Foner drives home the point very clear that Reconstruction of the South after the War and the establishment of the freed slaves as “freedman” was never a clearly focused policy or undertaking. What was done ended up being very half hearted, leaving the South to try to hang onto their previous plantation economy through measures designed to maintain African-Americans in a subjugated state. With Lincoln’s tragic assassination, the nation was left without a visionary leader that it needed to complete the unfinished business from the Civil War in a reconstructed South.

  3. Submitted by Roger Brooks on 12/02/2013 - 09:37 pm.

    Gettysburg Address

    Garry Wills has written an excellent book about the meaning of the Gettysburg Address. He points out the fact that Lincoln reaches back to the Declaration (Jefferson) prior to the Constitution (Madison) for his claim that “all men are created equal”.

    Lincoln was not just the guy on the penny; he was a living, evolving, politician. He did not see the world in the same way in 1865 that he did a few years earlier. Many thing were changing quickly, and many new opportunities were emerging.

    He went through several alternative scenerios, but ended up wanting to abolish slavery and endorsing citizenship for blacks.

    I think he’s considered “great” because he had humane values and was not locked into a fixed way of thinking.

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