Tuesday, November 19, 2013

150 Years Later: The Gettysburg Address

Since it’s the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, I thought I’d share a paper I had to write for grad school on the subject. When in doubt, always listen to Lincoln. 

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a short speech at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg. The ground he stood on had been fought over by Confederate and Union forces just four months prior, and the battle had signaled the turning point of the war for the Federals. Speaking for just over two minutes and employing a little over 250 words, Lincoln added to his oratorical legend and provided Americans with an enduring expression of freedom that has been recited over and over again in classrooms throughout the country. However, since the Confederacy was defeated and Lincoln is credited with preserving the Union, there is often little discussion in history classes about how the speech was originally received by the public and what the wording and context of the address actually meant for the country at that point in time. In hindsight, Lincoln’s address proved to be extraordinary, but why is that? How did the people at that dedication react and did it have the same effect as other famous American documents, such as the Declaration of Independence? Using methods —examining first-hand accounts and the context surrounding the event and scrutinizing the words Lincoln spoke— detailed in After the Fact, my goal is to delve deeper into those questions and gain a different perspective on why Lincoln’s address remains one of America’s best known speeches.

The first method I employed to determine the Gettysburg Address’ effectiveness was to examine first-hands accounts. At the time of the address, it is important to remember that Lincoln had been constantly attacked on all sides since taking office in 1861. He was hammered politically, militarily and personally. He was having trouble finding a general that could lead an army that vastly outnumbered its opponent in manpower as well as supplies. The Union army suffered one embarrassing loss after another, and nothing seemed to help stem the tide. Lincoln was also battling members of his cabinet, aggressive political opponents that seized on every failure and an increasingly war weary American people bled dry by constant warfare. It is no surprise then that once Lincoln finished delivering the address and sat back down on that November day, the initial public reaction was mixed. Many who were there actually missed the speech entirely since it was so brief. The Chicago Times gave a scathing review the next day, in which it wrote, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”1 Initially, even Lincoln had misgivings about the speech he had just delivered, saying to a friend that it was “a flat failure and people are disappointed.”2 Even members of his own party thought little of him, even before the speech. Thaddeus Stevens remarked before the event that Lincoln was a “dead card” in the party.3 Many thought the speech was unworthy of the event and that Edward Everett’s two-hour remarks preceding Lincoln were better suited for the occasion.

From Ken Burns' The Civil War

These first-hand accounts give us some first impressions of the address, but they don’t fully address all the questions a historian might have in determining its historical value. Our history would be incomplete, much like if we relied on John Smith’s account of the Indians in Chapter One of After the Fact, where he describes the ceremonies he sees in detail without trying to uncover the reasons behind the Indians behavior. While first hand accounts are valuable as a way of getting a sense of what the actual event was like, they contain all the biases of the person giving the account. To further justify the Gettysburg Address place in history, one must also look at the context surrounding the speech. 1863 saw the Civil War enter its third bloody year. Lincoln was stressed with the execution of the war, planning for re-election and dealing with his son’s health. 1862 had proven to be a horrendous failure for Union forces and Lincoln’s mind began to formulate a different strategy in defeating the Confederacy. Lincoln had long struggled to define the war as a means to preserve the Union and not a means to abolish slavery. This strategic definition of Northern goals not only prevented anti-war Democrats from collecting more ammunition to use against him, but it also prevented desertions from his army that might occur if they disagreed with why the war was being fought. After a year in which defeat followed defeat, Lincoln decided that freeing slaves was a “military necessity”4 and inflamed both his supporters and enemies by signing into law the Emancipation Proclamation early in January 1863. The Proclamation freed slaves in non-Union held territories, transformed “Union forces into armies of liberation” and “invited slaves to help” win the war.5 Lincoln was referred to as a “half-witted usurper” and that the proclamation was “monstrous, imprudent, and heinous…insulting to God as to man, for it declares those ‘equal’ whom God created ‘unequal.’”6 Lincoln survived this political onslaught easier after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg galvanized the North and his address was an affirmation to friend and foe alike that there was no going back to the old Union.

Also, most of the negative reactions to Lincoln’s address don’t take into consideration that Lincoln was not supposed to be the featured speaker that day. Everett took the top billing and gave a long speech that reflected that. Lincoln accepted the invitation to attend the dedication under the pretense that his remarks were to be brief. Also, not all the initial reactions were negative. Everett wrote to Lincoln after the event and said, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”7

Life Mask of Lincoln at the Smithsonian
Closely examining the words Lincoln uses also gives one a different perspective on his address. The address reads:

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. We are met on a great battle-field 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.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not 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. 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. 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 -- 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. 

Lincoln’s language touches on older themes in the American experience. His words are heavily influenced by Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. He employs this type of rhetoric for a specific reason. After calling on the country to embrace his Emancipation Proclamation, he is reiterating to those who doubt him that he will follow through on his course without fail. Throughout this address he reinforces that he has made up his mind on the issue of slavery and is trying to rally people to support his cause. He insists that this war and crisis is more than just preserving the Union as it was. Lincoln states that the nation is undergoing a “new birth of freedom.” In fact, the word Union does not appear once in this address, while he employs the word “nation” several times. This is further evidence that Lincoln was preparing the country for life after the war, in which there would be a new nation in replace of the old. His words evoke a nationalism that the Declaration evoked “four score and seven years ago.” Lincoln places the birth of the nation with the Declaration, not with the defeat of the British and writing of the Constitution. While the Emancipation Proclamation laid the blueprint for his plans, this address was a call to arms to the public. By including the phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” Lincoln is making sure the public knows that he is not the depot his critics make him out to be and that there would be no government without their support. He is taking the moral high ground, while anti-war Democrats are advocating peace terms with the enemies instead of fighting tooth and nail to birth a new freedom for a republic whose values were first establish in Jefferson’s Declaration.

Lincoln’s words also provided a rallying cry for Federal troops, as opposed to providing them an excuse to abandon the cause. By uttering phrases such as the world “can never forget what they did here,” “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion” and “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” Lincoln made it clear to his forces that the men that had fought and died on this battlefield did not do so for an empty cause. Up to this point, the Southerners arguably had more incentive to fight, considering that they believed they were doing so to fend off an invading army. The Union forces on the other hand, not only had to contend with inept generals, but also with an unclear mandate. After winning a fierce battle on its own northern soil, Federal troops now had a sense of what they were fighting for and were more likely to give up their lives, if not for the cause of abolition, then to preserve and defend the memory of their fallen comrades.

Lincoln Memorial at Dusk
In conclusion, one can get a better sense of why the Gettysburg Address continues to be a celebrated piece of American history by examining first-hand accounts, the context in which the speech was given and the words Lincoln spoke. It is my aim as a future historian to provide readers with insights like those above enabling them to think critically about every event in American history, good and bad.

1 Shelby Foote, The Civil War Vol, 2, 832

2 Foote 832

3 Foote 829

4 James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom 563

5McPherson 558

6 McPherson 594

7 Foote 833

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