Gettysburg and the Importance of Democracy

gburg address

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If you followed my writings over the past week you knew that I was again in Gettysburg leading my students on our Gettysburg Staff Ride.

This event was interesting as I was accompanied by five South Korean officers, all of whom were outstanding students, interested in learning, who also were able to glean the material and make application to today, not only in a military setting, but socially and politically. It was a joy to spend time with them each night over dinner and continue to discuss elements of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg and hear them discuss social, political, diplomatic, and military connections between then and now, as well as the tensions that exist in their own country.

I wish that more Americans were able to do that, instead all too often we, no matter what our political or ideological position, choose to believe myth presented as history and biography.

Today I am not going to explore the issue of myth being presented and believed as history, as I have written about it relatively recently. Instead I want to remind my readers of the continued importance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

As always I end the Staff Ride at the Soldier’s Cemetery on Cemetery Hill and close with a talk about the human cost of war, and the importance of the Gettysburg Address today. I actually think that this event, which commemorated the soldiers who fought an died for a proposition, magnifies the importance of that victory, even as it marked the beginning of a universalizing the concept of liberty, a concept at the time which was still pretty much limited to White men.

In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, even wondering about our form of government can survive Lincoln’s words matter. Dr. Allen Guelzo, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College wrote in the New York Times:

“The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.” [1]

Dr. Guelzo is quite correct. With the rise of Donald Trump and the frustration of so many people, on both the political right and left, many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist. I do believe that we will recover because for the life of me I see no nation anywhere else with our resiliency and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preachers.

Lincoln was sick when he delivered the address having what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox when he gave the address. Thus the tenor, simplicity and philosophical depth of the address are even more remarkable. It is a speech given in the manner of Winston Churchill’s “Blood sweat toil and tears” address to Parliament upon being appoint Prime Minister in 1940. Likewise it echoes the Transcendentalist understanding of the Declaration of Independence as a “test for all other things.”

Many in the United States and Europe did not agree and argued that no nation found on such principles could long survive. The more reactionary European subscribers of Romanticism ridiculed the “idea that a nation could be founded on a proposition….and they were not reluctant to point to the Civil War as proof that attempting to build a government around something as bloodless and logical as a proposition was futile.” [2]

But Lincoln disagreed. He believed that the “sacrifices of Gettysburg, Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chancellorsville, and a hundred other places demonstrated otherwise, that men would die rather than to lose hold of that proposition. Reflecting on that dedication, the living should themselves experience a new birth of freedom, a determination – and he drove his point home with a deliberate evocation of the great Whig orator Daniel Webster – “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” [3]

The Unitarian pastor and leading Transcendentalist Theodore Parker wrote:

“Our national ideal out-travels our experience, and all experience. We began our national career by setting all history at defiance – for that said, “A republic on a large scale cannot exist.” Our progress since that has shown that we were right in refusing to be limited by the past. The practical ideas of the nation are transcendent, not empirical. Human history could not justify the Declaration of Independence and its large statements of the new idea: the nation went beyond human history and appealed to human nature.” [4]

Likewise Lincoln’s address echoes the thought of George Bancroft who wrote of the Declaration:

“The bill of rights which it promulgates is of rights that are older than human institutions, and spring from the eternal justice…. The heart of Jefferson in writing the Declaration, and of Congress in adopting it, beat for all humanity; the assertion of right was made for the entire world of mankind and all coming generations, without any exceptions whatsoever.” [5]

Parker’s words also prefigured an idea that Lincoln used in his address, that being: The American Revolution, with American history since, is an attempt to prove by experience this transcendental proposition, to organize the transcendental idea of politics. The ideal demands for its organization a democracy – a government of all, for all, and by all…” [6]

So I ask that you take the time to reflect on the words of this remarkable speech, and in spite of all the cynicism take the time to read it again and imagine why it is still so important.

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 cannot 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.[7]

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Notes

[1] Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in Democracy New York Time Opinionator, November 17th 2013 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/lincolns-sound-bite-have-faith-in-democracy/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 July 18th 2014

[2] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening p.409

[3] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening p.408

[4] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.110

[5] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[6] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[7] Lincoln, Abraham The Gettysburg Address the Bliss Copy retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

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