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Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – American Liberalism Announced

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.

Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

I was in third or fourth grade the first time I read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Mrs. Hayes was our teacher and in one of those years, we studied the Civil War.   As part of that course, we memorized and recited the preamble, (first 30 words) to the President’s speech.  It will come as no surprise to anyone that I chose to memorize the entire thing and in a foreshadowing of every calculus course I would take in college, promptly forgot it as soon as I was done.  But the inability to recall from memory did not preclude an understanding of the Address’s fame.  And while I did not know it at the time, I would come to learn that Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg changed America in remarkable and unseen ways.

I mentioned in an earlier post that this year that I want to spend time discussing progressivism which of course, requires that I know something about it.  I’ve been working on several books about the Progressive Era which began after America’s Industrial Revolution.  This was the period immediately following the Civil War through the turn of the 20th century.  The Progressive Era was a period of social reform (1900 – 1920) in reaction to the horrible working conditions of the industrial age.  The Progressive Era set the stage for the liberal movement that took control of the Democratic Party leading up to FDR and the New Deal.  But that comes decades later.  First, let’s find out why this 272-word speech, delivered in November 1863 (in less than 3 minutes) fundamentally changed the way Americans thought about themselves, their history, and, well, America.

Lincoln Mythology

Historians tend to release presidential studies around President’s Day, and this year was no different.  Each year, we see surveys that rank the presidents against a few generic terms:  the most common being, “worst” and “best” president in history.  The 44 Commanders in Chief are then ranked (Why 44 and not 45 you ask?   Grover Cleveland served two, non-consecutive terms.  So he only counts once in the surveys).  Abraham Lincoln is consistently ranked at the top – number one among historians and political scientists of both parties.  In the late 20th and early 21st century Lincoln’s fame and stature is unquestionable; after all, he freed the slaves and saved the union.  But if you dig deeper into the time period and the context of his administration, you will find that much of what we honor in Lincoln came much later, decades after his death.

Studying history requires an investment in time, effort, and in some cases, money.  When it comes to our 16th President and the period in which he served, I argue that it is worth the sacrifice.  The Civil War was a pivotal moment in our history; so much so that the volumes of books devoted to the subject would likely fill the entire Library of Congress (and then some).  I recommend two:  James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  Both delve into the rich details of 19th-century American politics and the political economy but key to this post is the truth to the Lincoln mystique and mythology surrounding the Gettysburg Address.

Today, Lincoln is revered.  Big budget Hollywood movies are made based on his life and administration, and testaments to him as “The Great Emancipator” have been christened in states across the country.  He is known for his remarkable leadership under the strain of sectional division and war.  We are taught that through sheer determination and will, Lincoln emancipated the slaves for altruistic reasons; that the war provided the opportunity to apply the basic principles from the Declaration of Independence to those held in bondage, and that at Gettysburg, Lincoln merely reminded the world that America was not just a nation but an idea.

But that’s not what happened.  At Gettysburg, Lincoln did not remind the world of America’s purpose.  He announced it.

America Before and After Gettysburg

Gettysburg sometimes serves as a motif for the larger Civil War because, in retrospect, it was a significant inflection point in the much broader conflict.  But in an even larger sense, the American Civil War became a turning point in our own history; constitutional questions were settled and amendments ratified, if not dutifully enforced.  The nation’s economic destiny, a question long debated between the north and south and complicated not only by slavery, was settled.  The United States of America would go the way of the northern bankers and industrialists .  Infrastructure would be built, railroad track laid and immigrants accepted to settle the west.  America would soon become an industrial power supported by what would eventually become thousands of independent small farmers living on millions of acres given away through the Homestead Acts.  Slavery would no longer be an impediment to Republican ‘free labor’ ideology.

So much of what we accept as America is linked to directional and cultural changes that occurred after the Civil War.  In a post I wrote earlier this year, I riffed a bit on ‘Making America Great Again.’  To make something ‘great again,’ logic dictates that you need to know what made it great in the first place.  Rather than repeat the argument here, I will simply state the thesis:  America became “great” because of what makes us unique.  And what makes us unique is our brand; we are defined by it.  The “Idea of America” is that here, in a land of immigrants there is hope for liberty, equality, and freedom.  The American Idea, sometimes referred to as the American Experiment, has always been a test; can humanity self-govern itself, adhering to the rule of law, and remain observant of democratic norms and traditions?  Within that self-governing experiment, can power be distributed, and laws be written to protect minority rights?  Can we, as a free people be bound by these shared values rather than a common language, ethnicity, or religion?

The Idea of America has always answered affirmatively.  Yes!  Not only do we believe in these values, but we have inspired freedom and democracy seeking peoples around the world.  We uphold ideals and truth for the entire globe and speak out for the oppressed.  We rail against dictatorships and in support of human rights and dignity.  We believe in equality.  We seek justice for all peoples of the world.

But that was not the American brand before the Civil War.  I could devote a fairly lengthy post to antebellum political thought but I suspect most followers would rather have a root canal than read about John Calhoun or Henry Clay.  Significant here is the superiority of the Constitution in Antebellum America.  The Constitution, which established a republican government as a means to control the potential whims of the masses, was a conservative document.  In American history, the Constitutional Convention and ratification, followed by the Washington and Adams administrations represented not just a conservative government, but to some historians, a counter-revolution to the radicalism of the Revolution.  The Bill of Rights restored some of the democratic and individual freedoms, but the liberal ideas found in the Declaration of Independence were at best, set aside and at worst, abrogated.  The Alien and Sedition Acts served as an excellent example of the state infringing on an individual’s civil rights and personal liberties.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address changed all of that.  Separate and apart from the social, political, and economic changes brought about by the war, Lincoln was able to do something truly remarkable in the 272 words of the Address.  As Garry Wills writes in Lincoln at Gettysburg, “Lincoln performed a verbal coup.”  In those brief remarks, President Lincoln reframed how Americans thought about the founding, the revolution, Declaration of Independence, and the bloody conflict that had ravaged the nation.

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.

This was the first time a President of the United States, or any leader of such stature, defined the American founding in these terms.  And to be quite honest, an argument could be made that Lincoln was absolutely wrong:  maybe the Founders did not intend brand America in this way.  But we take it for granted that the ideas inherent in these words have always been part of the American Idea and that the United States has been a beacon of light, liberty, and freedom to the world since July 4, 1776.  But it was Lincoln at Gettysburg who first defined what the American Revolution meant, not just to Americans but to all of human history.  Not only did Lincoln reexamine the significance of America’s birth, but within a few words, he martyred the fifty thousand souls who died fighting to ensure that the nation, the one rooted in such high-minded ideals, would survive.  He did not separate Union soldiers from those of the Confederacy.  They were all martyrs because they were all Americans.

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.

A government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” was a radical departure from the mid-19th-century understanding this country.  If readers do not understand the significance of this ideological shift, consider current political events.  Lincoln’s speech is roughly the equivalent to GOP Congressional leaders (i.e. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) changing the party position on free trade and proposing or supporting tariffs on foreign imports.   Still confused?  What if I suggested that the Pope decreed that abortion was not a mortal sin, or the Catholic Church agreed to marry gays and lesbians.  The Address was that radical.

Wills describes that conservative newspapers of the time were openly critical of Lincoln’s remarks.  Terse responses were published; Lincoln had reinterpreted the founding and unrolled the Declaration of Independence, blown off the dust and given it priority over the Constitution.  The Declaration, a truly liberal manifesto, was heralded as the founding document that gave meaning to the death and destruction that lay all around.   Eloquently delivered, Abraham Lincoln turned an armed insurrection into a religious pursuit of liberal, democratic values.  Liberty, equality, freedom, and preservation of self-government are all values that make-up America’s Promise to the world.  That promise and that idea make America unique.  And it is that uniqueness that makes this country great.

Reading Lincoln

Why are Lincoln’s words, their context, and ideological foundation so important?  Because collectively, we have forgotten who we are.   Granted, these liberal values exalted in our founding documents are not kitchen-table issues.  A commitment to freedom, liberty, and equality and professing this moral code to the world will not pay the electrical bill or put money in college funds.  But these liberal values, the ones heralded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, James Madison in the Bill of Rights, and Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address are the foundation for what we deem as progressive policy, civil rights, and now modern social justice and reform.  The initiatives liberals champion are traced to the moment liberalism became a key component of the American brand.

In every visit to the nation’s capital, I stop at two landmarks:  the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court.  I am in awe of both, not just for their architectural beauty but for the symbolism of their relationship.  Inside Lincoln’s shrine, visitors will, of course, find the Gettysburg Address etched in one wall.  But they will also find Lincoln’s Second Inaugural which extends the American Idea, by acknowledging that like humanity, our union is imperfect.  To paraphrase the President, ‘Slavery,’ said Lincoln, ‘was a burden we must all share – we are all responsible for the original sin and therefore, every deviance thereafter.’  He spoke of healing and reconciliation, a necessary step in any recovery and one that the United States must do together.  The union was not perfect, but for it, we must strive.  Those words are worth reading here.


At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Speech, March 4, 1865

In 40 days, the Civil War would end and Lincoln would be dead, killed by an assassin’s bullet.

The Supreme Court and a More Perfect Union

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered his perfunctory remarks on the dedication of a cemetery in southern Pennsylvania.  Tens of thousands of martyred souls would be reinterred near the battlefield where they gave their lives for something other than the American Idea.  Lincoln gave the battle and all of that suffering new meaning.  Was it intentional?  Yes.  Was it a propaganda attempt to improve public perception of the war effort?  Perhaps.  Had he come to believe that the war was much more than an armed insurrection and instead, a battle between two conflicting ideologies and social structures?  Absolutely.

The Address was printed and reprinted in newspapers and pamphlets throughout the country.  Lincoln’s prestige (today we would call it his job approval rating) improved a bit after the rebels were repelled at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  It helped that Vicksburg, a major Mississippi River port city, fell to the Union on July 4, 1863.  It would be another year and a half before the nation would see an end to the fighting.  But the Address was both lauded and criticized, those on the right firmly believed that not only had Lincoln had usurped the Constitution but that the reinterpretation had led to an expansion of the state in certain domestic and economic affairs which, to conservatives was unconstitutional.

I noted that the Supreme Court was my second favorite landmark in the nation’s capital.  It is located north of the U.S. Capital, next to the Library of Congress and thus is in a prime location for sightseeing.  Former President and later Chief Justice William Howard Taft was successful in securing funds from Congress to construct the neoclassical building of which I am sure you are familiar.  Prior to the construction, the Supreme Court met in the Capital building.  Taft felt that SCOTUS needed a separate home in order to protect its independence and so, the Supreme Court building was built.

But that is not why I find it significant.  The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922 and with that ceremony, the ideas promulgated by our 16th President were preserved for future generations in the limestone walls of his shrine.  Visitors from all over the world stop and read the promises America made to future generations on that November day in 1863 and then again at his second inauguration in March 1864.  But regretfully, words and ideas are just that if we, as a people, do not have the intelligence and bravery to honor them.  Time after time, we have ignored the words and the intent behind them, instead focusing solely on ourselves and our own personal motives.  It’s the “what’s in it for me” syndrome.  Too many Americans do not welcome immigrants but know nothing about immigration policy.  Others claim to be “pro-life” but refuse to support gun-control legislation that has been proven to save lives.  We see opponents, not as our equals with different views on public policy, but as our enemy that we can insult and bully online.  And we have no compunction with spreading misinformation that we know is untrue or refuse to verify.  It happens on the left and the right.

In the 153 years since Appomattox, we have fallen far short of the American Idea and have broken our promise to the world multiple times.  We freed the slaves, only to leave them vulnerable to political violence and economic destitution.  We asked immigrants to come, build, and sacrifice to make America strong, only to fear and lash out against them in an illogical angst over demographic changes.  But our failure to execute the lofty ideas found within Lincoln are often addressed, albeit slowly by the law and the courts.  The Supreme Court, representing America’s judicial branch has time and again, upheld America’s liberal values.  Regretfully, recent decisions have reflected the ideological divisions within the political class and that has left our politics polluted, coarse, and skewed toward elites.  But the courts have made bad decisions in our history, only to be reversed years later (i.e. Plessy v. Fergusen and Dred Scott).  The scales of justice are excruciatingly slow, but they eventually balance.  Where we fail to deliver individually or legislatively, we can win in the courts.

The Supreme Court and Lincoln Memorial:  bookends to centuries of progress and social reform.  And between those two landmarks lie the halls of Congress and the National Mall, where you find the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, and memorials and monuments to our history.  Between the American Idea and its implementation, is the history of how past generations forced America to uphold American values.  Thousands of demonstrations and protests have held policymakers accountable; forcing change and requiring more than lip service to the liberal values found in our Declaration and Bill of Rights.  Where would we be without the progressive reformers, so many obscure and unknown, who marched, picketed, lobbied, and sat to see social justice for others?  They were all inspired by Lincoln’s words and the American Idea that they defined.

What would Lincoln do?

Honestly?  I have no idea.  I have not studied him enough to even guess.  I think he would be disappointed with our current political dialogue given the bloodshed of his time.  He might wonder why the two parties cannot agree on anything and he would be shocked by all the money in our politics.  Given his intellect, I think it likely that he would bemoan the relative ignorance of today’s political leaders, particularly those who fail to inspire and instead choose to destroy.  And I think he would disagree with his own Republican Party for many of its current positions.

The American Idea is more than lofty phrases and flourishing oratory.  It translates to our values, and values become policy.  When Illinois State Senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he captured the audience’s attention with his message of unity to a nation still reeling from 9/11.  He offered hope and change in 2008 and cited Lincoln as one of his inspirations.  The message resonated and he was elected to the presidency twice.  But Obama was not nearly as successful as he could have been in translating the “Idea” to policy; instead, he provoked an intense backlash that led to 2016.

Was that the fault of Obama?  Or did the rest of us fail to show up?  Are we, at this very minute failing ourselves, our history, and the future of democracy?  Do we still believe in the American Idea?  If so, why do we demonize liberalism?  Why are we not educated on the key issues facing our nation?  And finally, if we do still believe in the American Idea, why do we accept leaders whose behaviors, ideology, and actions demonstrate that they don’t?

If we truly want to “Make America Great Again,” then we need to preserve the American Idea.  Uplifting and lofty speeches cannot do this on their own; it takes policymakers that know how to craft and implement good policy and a government that wants to govern.  America has had that combination in periods since the Civil War but is in desperate need of it now.  Each of us gets to decide;  we can either contribute to the American Idea or continue to tear it down.  As it was in Lincoln’s day, it is completely within our control.







Royal Cortissoz



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