Defending “The New Birth of Freedom” The Gettysburg Address in the Age of Trump

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19th November 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The weekend before Donald Trump was elected President I was at Gettysburg with my students from the Staff College. We finished our staff ride at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. My practice as always was to close the staff ride by reading his address. I always get a bit choked up when I read it because I realize just how important what he said was then, and still is today. That Sunday it was as if I saw the Confederate hordes advancing upon Cemetery Ridge and the fate of the country hanging in the balance.

I had already seen the assaults on our Republic and Constitution by Donald Trump and his supporters, and that particular day I was full of dread. I knew that if Trump won, and his supporters on the Alt-Right have their way, our system of government will be destroyed, the civil liberties that the men who died at Gettysburg to establish, would be curtailed or even rolled back. I feared, and it turns out quite rightly, that if Trump won, that civil rights would be threatened or rolled back, that White Nationalists would be emboldened, and racist violence and anti-Semitic attacks would increase exponentially. I would have preferred to be wrong, but I was right.

In November of 1863 Abraham Lincoln was sick when when he traveled by train from Washington DC to Gettysburg. When Lincoln delivered the address, he was suffering from what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox. Thus the tenor, simplicity and philosophical depth of his 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 his appointment as Prime Minister in May, 1940. Likewise it echoes the Transcendentalist understanding of the Declaration of Independence as a “test for all other things.”

Many people in the United States and Europe did not agree with Lincoln’s restatement of the founding premise of the Declaration of Independence. Opponents 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.” [1]

As late as 1848, the absolute monarchies of Europe had fought against and put down with force revolutionary movements attempting to imitate the American experiment. Many of the revolutionaries from Germany, Poland, and other nations fled to the United States, where 15 years later, clad in the Blue of the United States Army fought to preserve that experiment on the battlefields of the American Civil War, including Gettysburg.

But Lincoln disagreed with the conservative reactionaries of Europe, or the American Slave owning aristocracy. He believed that Americans would fight to defend that proposition. 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.” [2]

The Unitarian pastor, abolitionist, and leading Transcendentalist thinker, 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.” [3]

Lincoln’s address echoes the thought of historian 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.” [4]

Theodore Parker’s words also prefigured an idea that Lincoln used in his address. Parker, like Lincoln believed that: “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…” [5]

Following a train trip to Gettysburg and an overnight stay, Lincoln delivered these immortal words on that November afternoon:

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.[6]

In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, especially a man as singularity ill-equipped and ill-tempered as Donald Trump, Lincoln’s words still matter. Since Trump’s election he, and his supporters, many of whom are White Nationalists, and authoritarians have moved on many fronts to curtail civil rights and re-establish White rule in a way unseen since secession, and Jim Crow. So far our institutions have held, but there is no guarantee that they will. In such an environment, one has to wonder if our very form of government can survive.

But it is important that they do, and despite our weariness, we need to continue to fight for those ideals, even when the world seems to be closing in around us as it must have seemed following Lee’s initial success on the first day of battle at Gettysburg.

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.” [7]

Dr. Guelzo is quite correct. Many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist, and despite my doubts, I have to believe that we will eventually recover.

Admittedly, that is an act of faith based on our historical resiliency, and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preacher, including the hate filled message of Donald Trump and his White Supremacist supporters, especially supposedly “conservative ” Christians. That doesn’t mean that I am not afraid for our future, or that despite my belief that our institutions will hold. Historian, Timothy Snyder correctly noted:

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

The amazing thing during the Civil War was that in spite of everything, the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that. His steady leadership and unfailing resolve help see the Republic through manifold disasters.

But, it was the men who left lives of comfort and security to defend the sacred principles of the Declaration, like Joshua Chamberlain, and many others who brought about that victory. Throughout the war, even to the end Southern political leaders failed to understand that Union men would fight and die for an ideal, something greater than themselves, the preservation of the Union and the freedom of an enslaved race. For those men that volunteered to serve, the war was not about personal gain, loot or land, it was about something greater. It was about freedom, and when we finally realize this fact, and take up the cause that they fought and died for, then maybe, just maybe, we can contemplate the real meaning of “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.d. [8]

Now, I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln on that day at Gettysburg. I can understand the cynicism disillusionment of Americans, as well as those around the world who have for over 200 years looked to us and our system as a “city set on a hill.” That being said, when I read these words and walk the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, I am again a believer. I believe that we can realize the ideal, even in our lifetime should we decide to again believe in that proposition and be willing to fight, or even die for it. Of course, it is quite possible that we will not measure up to the example set by Lincoln and the men who fought for the Union at Gettysburg. If we don’t, The blame will be upon all of us.

So, have a great day and please stop to think about how important Lincoln’s words remain as we wait to see what the next day of Trump’s America brings.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in DemocracyNew 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

[8] Ibid. McPherson This Hallowed Ground p.138

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

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