Monday, November 19, 2018
November 19, 2018: GettysburgStudying: The Address
[On November 19, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettsysburg Address. Few American speeches have been more significant, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy the address and a few other Gettysburg histories and contexts. Leading up to a special Thanksgiving weekend post!]
On two particularly compelling choices in Lincoln’s concise masterpiece.
I’m far from the first to note the irony of just how many words have been written about Lincoln’s 272-word Gettsyburg Address (even that website devotes many, many more words than that to the speech), delivered to consecrate the battlefield’s cemetery on this date in 1863 (about 4.5 months after the battle). Historian Garry Wills wrote an entire, excellent public scholarly book on the speech: Lincoln at Gettsyburg: The Words that Remade America (1992), for example. I would have to be pretty full of myself to imagine that I have much I can really add to all those existing words—and I guess I am, because I’m writing this post! But I’ll also say that you should read Wills’ book, and this one by historian Martin P. Johnson, and this one by Jared Peatman, and and and…
Before you do that, though, a couple of things about the speech that especially stand out for this AmericanStudier. For one thing, Lincoln opens with a crystal clear vision of the Civil War’s causes: he calls America “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; and then calls the war “a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” I likely don’t have to convince many of my blog readers that the Civil War was fought over slavery, but for anyone in doubt who doesn’t want to read long documents like the Confederate secession declarations, Lincoln’s brief speech sums it up quite nicely. I know full well the realities of slavery behind (and propping up) America’s founding, of course; but Lincoln is highlighting here the ideals, the conception and dedication and proposition, that motivated the founding and especially its crucial documents. And he couldn’t be plainer that this war over American slavery is also a war over whether that idealized nation can move past that original sin and toward a more perfect union.
And then there’s this sentence in Lincoln’s long (relatively speaking) last paragraph: “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.” In part this moment reframes the occasion’s goal of “dedication” one more time, in a way both delightful to this lifelong punner and significant for its connection of memory to action, commemoration to activism, past to future. And in part it folds the moment itself, the speech, the audience, and really all Americans into Lincoln’s vital “us the living” and his even more crucial recognition that the work of progress is advancing but unfinished. To take a cemetery commemoration and make it a call to action for the living is a bold move in and of itself; to make it a command that we take up the mantle of these fallen brethren and carry on with the national work for which they gave their lives is, well, why your short speech remains a touchpoint 155 years later.
PS. What do you think?