How Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech changed America
One hundred fifty years ago, amid lingering northern doubts about whether the Civil War was worth the cost, President Abraham Lincoln travelled to Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery. Some months before, Union forces had repelled a Confederate incursion into Pennsylvania at the tiny crossroads town, forcing the Rebel invaders to retreat. But the three-day battle had been costly for both sides, and despite the Union victory, war pessimism hung over the North.
In a concise 272 words, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address attempted to convince the northern public to stay the course.
“Four score and seven years ago,” he began, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” By making reference to the founding of the country 87 years before, Lincoln placed the battle within the larger arc of American history, thus connecting the work of Union soldiers at Gettysburg to the work of the Union’s founders at Philadelphia.
The date was significant. Lincoln marked the creation of the republic not with the writing of the Constitution in 1787 but instead with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration supplied the principle that “all men were created equal,” the principle for which, according to the Lincoln, the war was now being waged.
Ideal of equality
Having nearly a year before issued the carefully worded Emancipation Proclamation, which relied on the wartime powers of the executive to liberate slaves in the Confederacy, Lincoln now painted in bolder strokes. Referring to the notion of equality in the midst of a wartime social revolution, as African Americans walked off southern plantations and into the northern army, Lincoln seemed to be pushing the country forward. The president called on Americans to dedicate themselves to “the unfinished work” of those who had fought at Gettysburg, thus joining America’s founding ideal of equality with African Americans’ aspirations for liberty.
The speech also emphasised the sacrificial nature of the Union deaths, for Lincoln noted that the “brave men” who struggled there had already “consecrated” the ground, “far above our poor power to add or detract.” A few months before, he had taken note of black sacrifice in other battles when, in a letter to critics of his emancipation policy, he had observed, “You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you.”
In trumpeting the ideals of the Declaration of Independence at a moment of black aspiration and sacrifice, Lincoln set out the broadest definition of liberty the country had yet known.
Less than four months later, the president would suggest to the wartime governor of Louisiana that some African Americans should have the right to vote. In short, if the Emancipation Proclamation had struck a blow against slavery, the Gettysburg Address took subtle aim at the ideology of white supremacy that lay behind it.
Lincoln also attempted to redefine American nationhood. In his First Inaugural Address of 1861, Lincoln had referred to “the Union” twenty times. Always using “the Union” as a synonym for the country, Lincoln had not once referred to “the nation.” But by the end of 1863, Lincoln’s rhetoric changed significantly. He now referred to the founders of 1776 as having “brought forth on this continent a new nation.”
The war had changed his perspective. Wartime exigencies had vastly expanded the federal government, which Lincoln now viewed as a powerful means of unifying the people and promoting liberty. Only a united nation with a strong central government, he believed, could end slavery and protect liberty. Not once at Gettysburg did Lincoln refer to “the Union,” a term that implied the existence — if not the assent — of the states.
Instead, Lincoln attempted to summon the Northern people to victory and to resolve the problems of slavery and states’ rights that had plagued the country since its founding. Referring to “the nation” five times in a two-minute speech, Lincoln advocated an energetic national state based on popular sovereignty — a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”—to bring about “a new birth of freedom” in America.
By insisting that liberty was not simply the purview of dreamy idealists, but that it could be secured through one’s own efforts, won on the field of battle, and protected by a unified nation committed to its preservation, Lincoln sought to transform America. By redefining liberty and nationalism by essentially fusing them together, Lincoln not only inspired the North to continue the fight, he forever changed how we think about our country.
(Huebner is the L. Palmer Brown Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities and chair of the Department of History at Rhodes College, Memphis.)
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