Lincoln at Gettysburg

Several months ago I posted about the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the climactic battle of the Civil War.  Today marks the 150th anniversary of the commemoration of the national cemetery at the battlefield, at which President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, arguably his greatest and certainly his most famous speech.

I’ve just finished a marvelous series of twenty-four lectures on Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric. The course follows Lincoln’s growth as a speaker, from his first public talk on temperance as a young Whig, to his final public address, to well-wishers outside the White House on the occasion of Lee’s surrender.

As Lincoln moved toward high office, first in his contest for a Senate seat from Illinois in 1858, against Stephen Douglas, later in the speeches in Ohio and at Cooper Union that made him a credible candidate for the Republican nomination for President, his speeches became more careful, yet at the same time more eloquent and persuasive. He moved away from the broad accusations of conspiracy that were common in mid-19th-century electioneering, as he sought a defensible middle ground between outright abolitionism and Douglas’s acceptance of the Dred Scott decision and its implicit endorsement of unlimited expansion of slavery into the Territories.

It was the combination of Lincoln’s eloquent moral argument against the expansion of slavery, combined with his clear rejection of any desire to pursue slavery’s near-term extinction in the South, that made him both acceptable to anti-slavery Republicans and potentially electable as President of a nation that did not want war.

Yet, as Lincoln said in his second Inaugural, “and the war came.”  But if Lincoln could neither avert the war nor in any way mitigate its terrible cost, his studied moderation kept the border slave states in the Union, kept potential Southern allies in Europe on the sidelines, and kept the American people in the loyal states just committed enough to the preservation of Union to see our nation’s most destructive conflict to its bloody, bloody end.

Lincoln’s invitation to speak at Gettysburg was an afterthought. The principal speaker was Edward Everett, former President of Harvard, minister, Governor, Senator, Ambassador, generally considered by his contemporaries the leading public speaker of the age. He delivered a fine, two-hour eulogy to the brave dead, putting the battle at Gettysburg in the company of the Greek defeat of the Persians at Marathon, recounting the three-day battle in detail. Those who discount Everett in these latter days fail to understand that he delivered the necessary and expected speech for the occasion.

But Lincoln delivered a speech for the ages. In just 270 words, he explained to his audience, and to us living a century and a half later, why the war had to be fought, why it had to be won, and what was of such enduring value in the Union he worked so hard to preserve.

Most of us remember at least the peroration of Lincoln’s speech: “…that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”  Almost every modern speaker delivers this line incorrectly, emphasizing the prepositions not the repeated noun — of the people, by the people, for the people. Lincoln emphasized the noun, repeated three times — of the people, by the people, for the people. In Lincoln’s mind, the Civil War would decide whether popular rule would survive and spread in the world. He believed in, trusted, the people. His rhetoric called them to value and to defend their own liberty, which in turn secured the liberties of future generations, both in America and abroad.

The American Presidency was constructed by our Constitution to be an institutionally limited office. Much of its power lies in the ability to command attention, rather than to mandate action. Teddy Roosevelt understood this when he called the Presidency a “bully pulpit.” A half-century before radio, Lincoln’s respect for his audience, and for the office of the Presidency, made him careful of his choice of words at all times and in all situations. It was precisely because the issues were so important, the constellation of interests so nicely balanced, that Lincoln exercised such care in constructing his arguments, both as prospective candidate, as President-elect, and as wartime President.

All of us benefit from the Union Lincoln preserved, and that probably, only he could have preserved. It is a different nation from the one that Lincoln led into war. We have been, ever since the Gettysburg Address, the United States of America (singular), not these United States of America (plural).

I remain grateful that, in those dark and divided times, we had a President committed to nation over party, who appealed always to “the better angels of our nature,” and who, regardless of the great work before him, never found his own understanding of the national interest to be in conflict with simply telling the truth.


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