Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

At The New York Times, historian Allen Guelzo writes:
The warning Lincoln issues is his admission that the Civil War was testing whether or not democracies are inherently unstable — “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” Today, many take democracy for granted as the endpoint of political development. But it did not look that way in 1863. The French Revolution, which promised to be the American Revolution’s beachhead in Europe, swiftly circled downward in the Reign of Terror and then the tyranny of Bonaparte; democratic uprisings in Spain in 1820, in Russia in 1825, in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848 were crushed by newly renascent monarchies or subverted by Romantic philosophers, glorying in regimes built on blood, soil and nationality rather than the Rights of Man.
The outbreak of the American Civil War only gave the monarchs further reason to rejoice. The survival of the American democracy had been a thorn in their royal sides, unsettling their downtrodden peoples with dreams of self-government. That this same troublesome democracy would, in 1861, obligingly proceed to blow its own political brains out — and do it in defense of the virtues of human slavery — gave the monarchs no end of delight.
Lincoln’s task at Gettysburg was to persuade his hearers, on the evidence offered by three days of battle, that democracy’s sun had not set after all. Gettysburg was not only a victory, but a victory won with the Union Army’s back to the wall, and its news came, appropriately, on July 4.
 At The Los Angeles Times, historian Ronald C. White writes:
In his final three sentences Lincoln pointed away from words to deeds. He contrasted "what we say here" with "what they did here."
In this closing paragraph, he continued his use of repetition: "To be dedicated; to be here dedicated." And: "We take increased devotion"; "the last full measure of devotion."
Lincoln, who always chose his words carefully, here selected words that conjured up the call to religious commitment he heard regularly in the preaching at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.
At this point in his delivery, Lincoln made the only addition to the text he had written. He interjected "under God." Unlike words added extemporaneously in earlier speeches, which he often edited out before he allowed a speech to be published, Lincoln included "under God" in subsequent copies of the address.
Those words pointed toward the next phrase, "a new birth of freedom," with its layered political and religious meanings. Politically speaking, at Gettysburg he was no longer defending an old Union but proclaiming a new one.