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John Brown: Fanatical Idealist and “Warrior for God”

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                                                        John Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

October 16th is the anniversary of John Brown’s attempted seizure of the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry. He was executed after trial on December 2nd 1859. Brown was  a man who had a righteous cause, but surrendered the moral high ground because of his fanaticism. Justice Robert Jackson wrote:“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” John Brown was a fanatic who in his desire to achieve his goal was not above committing murder as he did in Kansas, and insurrection as he did at Harper’s Ferry. There are many people in this country who harbor similar beliefs. John Brown serves as a warning to all of us. Violent means in service of a honorable or righteous cause often make things far worse.

This article is part of my draft book Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory: Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

In the North there too existed an element of religious fanaticism. While “the restraining hand of churches, political parties and familial concerns bounded other antislavery warriors,” [1] and while most abolitionists tried to remain in the mainstream and work through legislation and moral persuasion to halt the expansion of slavery with the ultimate goal of emancipation; there were fanatical abolitionists that were willing to attempt to ignite the spark which would cause the powder keg of raw hatred and emotion to explode.

Most prominent among these men was John Brown. Brown was a “Connecticut-born abolitionist…a man with the selfless benevolence of the evangelicals wrought into a fiery determination to crush slavery.” [2] His father was an early abolitionist who helped later found Oberlin College. In his early years Brown “formulated a certitude about divine intervention against sinners, starring himself as God’s warrior against slaveholders.” [3] As early as 1834 John Brown was “an ardent sympathizer the Negroes,” desiring to raise a black child in his own home and to “offering guidance to a colony of Negroes on the farm of the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith at North Elba New York.” [4]Brown regarded moderate free Staters with distain and though he was a fanatical Christian he never joined any church, and “obeyed only his conception of God’s unbounded command.” [5]

Brown “ridiculed Republican’s mainstream tactics. He disparaged even Yankee extremists for deploying too non-violent a strategy.” [6] After a series of failed business ventures the militant Brown went to Kansas and set about to change the equation through the use of terror. After the sack of Lawrence, Brown and a company of his marauders set upon and slaughtered the family of a pro-slavery settler at Pottawatomie Creek. [7] Brown and his son’s entered the house of one family, “dragged three men outside, shot the father through the head, and hacked and mutilated his two sons with broadswords.”[8] Two years later Brown went to Missouri where he “murdered a slaveholder, seized eleven slaves, and led the new freedmen 1100 miles to Canadian sanctuary.” [9]

The example of John Brown provides us with a good example to understand religious extremism, especially when it becomes violent. The counterinsurgency field manual notes in words that are certainly as applicable to Brown as they are to current religiously motivated terrorists, that “Religious extremist insurgents….frequently hold an all-encompassing worldview; they are ideologically rigid and uncompromising….  believing themselves to be ideologically pure, violent religious extremists brand those they consider insufficiently orthodox as enemies.”[10] 

Brown was certainly “a religious zealot…but was nevertheless every much the product of his time and place….” [11] Brown was a veteran of the violent battles in Kansas where he had earned the reputation as “the apostle of the sword of Gideon” as he and his men battled pro-slavery settlers. Brown was possessed by a zealous belief that God had appointed him as God’s warrior against slaveholders. He despised the peaceful abolitionists and demanded action. “Brave, unshaken by doubt, willing to shed blood unflinchingly and to die for his cause if necessary, Brown was the perfect man to light the tinder of civil war in America, which was what he intended to do.” [12]

Brown attempted to gain financing from wealthy abolitionists for a new expedition to seize the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry Virginia, and most would have nothing to do with his scheme. When they “touted their pacific antislavery societies, Brown responded that “your methods are perfectly futile; you would not release five slaves in a century; peaceful emancipation is impossible.” [13] After hearing William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders plead for peaceful abolition he remarked: “We’ve reached a point,” I said, “where nothing but war can get rid of slavery in this guilty nation. It’s better that a whole generation of men, women, and children should pass away by a violent death than that slavery should continue to exist.” I meant that literally, every word of it.” [14]

Following that meeting, as well as a meeting with Frederick Douglass who rejected Brown’s planned violent action, Brown went about collecting recruits for his cause and set out to seize 10,000 muskets at the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in order to ignite a slave revolt. Brown and twenty-one followers, sixteen whites and five blacks moved on the arsenal. As they went, Brown:

“believed that we would probably fail at the Ferry, would probably die. But I believed that all we had to do was make the attempt, and Jehovah would do the rest: the Heavens would turn black, the thunder would rend the sky, and a mighty storm would uproot this guilty land, washing its sins away with blood. With God’s help, I, John Brown, would effect a mighty conquest even though it was like the last victory of Samson.” [15] 

After initial success in capturing the armory, Brown’s plan was frustrated and Brown captured by a force of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart. Brown was tried and hanged, but his raid “effectively severed the country into two opposing parts, making it clear to moderates there who were searching for compromise, that northerner’s tolerance for slavery was wearing thin.” [16]

It now did not matter that Brown was captured, tried, convicted and executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown to be sure was “a half-pathetic, half-mad failure, his raid a crazy, senseless exploit to which only his quiet eloquence during trial and execution lent dignity” [17] but his act was the watershed from which the two sides would not be able to recover; the population on both sides having gone too far down the road to disunion to turn back.

Brown had tremendous support among the New England elites, the “names of Howe, Parker, Emerson and Thoreau among his supporters.” [18] To abolitionists he had become a martyr “but to Frederick Douglass and the negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience on how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him. They understood him, as Thoreau and Emerson and Parker never did.” [19]

But to Southerners Brown was the symbol of an existential threat to their way of life. In the North there was a nearly religious wave of sympathy for Brown, and the “spectacle of devout Yankee women actually praying for John Brown, not as a sinner but as saint, of respectable thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and Longfellow glorifying his martyrdom in Biblical language” [20] horrified Southerners, and drove pro-Union Southern moderates into the secession camp. The Richmond Enquirer wrote in its editorial, “The Harper’s Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion, more than any other event that has happened since the foundation of the Government; it has rallied to that standard men who formerly looked on it with horror; it has revived, with ten fold strength the desire of a Southern Confederacy…” [21]

The day that Brown went to his hanging he wrote his final missive. This was written once more in apocalyptic language, but also in which he portrayed himself as a Christ figure going to his cross on the behalf of a guilty people, but a people whom his blood would not atone:

“It’s now December second – the day of my hanging, the day the gallows become my cross. I’m approaching those gallows while sitting on my coffin in the bed of a military wagon. O dear God, my eyes see the glory in every step of the divine journey that brought me here, to stand on that platform, in that field, before all those soldiers of Virginia. Thank you, Father, for allowing an old man like me such might and soul satisfying rewards. I am ready to join thee now in Paradise…

They can put the halter around my neck, pull the hood over my head. Hanging me won’t save them from God’s wrath! I warned the entire country: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” [22]

Brown’s composure and dignity during trial impressed Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who signed Brown’s death warrant as well as that of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin. In his diary Ruffin “praised Brown’s “animal courage” and “complete fearlessness & insensibility to danger and death.” [23]

UBrown’s death was marked with signs of mourning throughout the North, for Brown was now a martyr. Henry David Thoreau “pronounced Brown “a crucified hero,” [24] while through the North, Brown’s death was treated as a martyr’s death. Even abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who had condemned violence in the quest of emancipation praised Brown’s actions, while throughout the North:

“Church bells tolled, black bunting was hung out, minute guns were fired, prayer meetings assembled, and memorial resolutions adopted. In the weeks following, the emotional outpouring continued: lithographs of Brown circulated in vast numbers, subscriptions were organized for the support of his family, immense memorial meetings took place in New York, Boston and Philadelphia…” [25]

Future Confederate General Lafayette McLaws spoke for many Southerners in the army when he wrote: His diary entry for February 27th 1860 noted:

“Debates in congress show no mitigation of sec. feeling…. I think it would be better not to be so fanatical on any subject, the extreme pro-slavery man is as bad as that type as that type of anti-slavery, John Brown. I do not consider slavery an evil by any means, but I certainly do not think it the greatest blessing.” [26]

But in the South there was a different understanding of Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Despite official denunciations of Brown by Abraham Lincoln and other Republican leaders, the message proclaimed by Southern newspapermen, ministers and politicians was that the North could not be trusted.  Brown’s raid, and the reaction of Northerners to it “was seized upon as argument-clinching proof that the North was only awaiting its opportunity to destroy the South by force….” [27]

Of course that was not the feeling in much of the North, but Brown’s actions and words were seized upon by the Southern versions of Brown to make Civil War inevitable once the political balance changed, and they neither controlled the Presidency, House, or Senate.

                                                          Notes 

[1] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[2] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.81

[3] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[4] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.211

[5] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.207

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.206

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis pp.211-212

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.118

[9] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[10] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[11] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.197

[12] Ibid. Korda, Clouds of Glory p.xviii

[13] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.208

[14] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.203

[15] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.284

[16] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxxix

[17] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.18

[18] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.381

[19] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.375

[20] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.187

[21] ___________ The Harper’s Ferry Invasion as Party Capital The Richmond Enquirer, 23 October 1859 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.54

[22] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.290

[23] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.3

[24] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.210

[25] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.378

[26] Oefinger, John C. Editor A Soldier’s General: The Civil War Letters of Major General Lafayette McLaws University of North Carolina Press, Charlotte and London 2002 p.18

[27] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.119

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A New Birth of Freedom

gburg address

Friends of Padre Steve’s World. Yesterday we celebrated the 239th anniversary of American independence and the revolutionary document we know as the Declaration of Independence. I wrote about that yesterday and discussed the context of it as well as the contradiction to it posed by the institution of slavery. I talked about Abraham Lincoln and how for him the Declaration was the real heart of the American nation. In Novwmber of 1863 after nearly three years of bloody Civil War and about 10 months following the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the dedication of the Soldeirs Cemetary at Gettysburg. 

In those few words Lincoln redefined forever the concept of Liberty found in the Declaration, he universalized it. Though of practice of it often falls short, it is the high bar for which we must strive. If we do not we will return to the days when freedom was only for the few, and sadly there are many on the political right who not only believe that Liberty is reserved for the few but labor incessantly to prevent people from the full excercuse of the rights of citizenship and wherever possible to roll them back. 

I hope that you enjoy this.

Peace

Padre Steve+

I am always humbled when I travel to Gettysburg as I about to do again early next month. It is hard to believe in that now peaceful pastoral setting that over 157,000 Americans, almost 82,000 Union and 75,000 Confederates met in a three-day battle. In those three days over 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. It was the greatest number of casualties inflicted in one battle on American soil in history.

The places that the battle was fought have become legendary, for they are “hallowed ground” as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it. The places, McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Railroad Cut, Barlow’s Knoll, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, The Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Apse of Trees, the Angle and the High Water Mark are in a sense holy, or hallowed ground. Those who struggled there, those who lived and those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country consecrated them more than any of us could ever do. When I take my students there I always finish at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

I think about those men of both sides, fully convinced of the rightness of their cause who fought valiantly in the struggle. That being said when I go to Gettysburg my heart, my mind and my soul are with the men who remained loyal to the Union and those who answered the call of Abraham Lincoln to serve in a cause greater than their own interests, the great and the small alike. This is despite the fact that my family predominantly fought for the Confederacy.

Lincoln was a masterful orator who managed to rally the Union and bring hundreds of thousands of men to volunteer to serve before Gettysburg. These men volunteered for an ideal, an ideal for which Lincoln’s oratory was probably the most effective means at articulating in an ideal that men would volunteer to suffer hardship, fight and die to bring about. It was well put in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels said:

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other…” [1]

On November 19th 1863 Lincoln delivered a “few words” at Gettysburg which were in all practical aspects a benediction at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. Lincoln was the second speaker at the ceremony following former Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours, a typical speech from the period.

Everett was one of the leading orators of his day. Everett was “a scholar and Ivy-League diplomat who could hold mass audiences in thrall. His voice, diction, and gestures were successfully dramatic, and he always performed his carefully written text, no matter how long, from memory.” [2]

The 270 words of Lincoln’s address are perhaps the most important of any speech or document in American history save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, in those words “Lincoln, nevertheless managed to justify the ways of democracy more than anyone, then or now.” [3]

The speech was so powerful that Everett wrote Lincoln the next day:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” [4]

The speech is short, but its eloquence is unmatched. Lincoln wrapped ideas, concepts and ideals that men have written volumes about into a speech so powerful that many have memorized it.

But few realize the context that it must be placed. Though the Union had defeated Lee’s Army at Gettysburg and Grant had taken Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in half the North was growing war weary. During the fall of 1863 after a series of inconclusive battles in northern Virginia both Lee and Meade’s armies had sent significant numbers of troops to the west, to support operations in eastern Tennessee.

Lee sent Longstreet’s First Corps, which took part in the bloody battle of Chickamauga, which “is a Cherokee word meaning “river of death.” [5] where on September 19th and 20th the Federal Army of the Cumberland under General Rosecrans “were soundly whipped at …and driven back into the strategic point of Chattanooga.” [6] The number of casualties on both sides, over 16,000 Federal and 18,000 Confederate, a “combined total of 34,634 was exceeded only the three day slaughter at Gettysburg and by the week-long series of five battles known collectively as the Seven Days.” [7] Despite the number of casualties it was one of the biggest Confederate victories of the war. A clerk in Richmond wrote “The whole South will be filled again with patriotic fervor, and in the North there will be a corresponding depression.” [8] That changed rapidly when the Union reacted quickly and reversed the strategic situation. One action taken was to deploy Oliver Howard’s XI Corps and Henry Slocum’s XII Corps west, where “they would be commanded by Joe Hooker, who was conveniently at hand and unemployed.” [9]

In the east during the following weeks “Lee and Meade, like two wounded, spent gladiators, sparred listlessly along the Rapidan. It seemed to Northerners that the fruits of Gettysburg had been thrown away.” [10] Lee sensed an opportunity to go back on the offensive against Meade’s weakened army, but his offensive was stopped on October 14th when “the Union Second Corps shattered a reckless attack by A.P. Hill’s corps at Bristoe Station, five miles south of Manassas.[11]

There was a faction in the North, the Copperheads, who were willing even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, even allowing for Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery. They “clamored for negotiations with the Confederacy to restore the Union on the basis of status quo antebellum and, until the closing months of the war charged that as long as the antislavery party remained in power the restoration of the Union could not be achieved.” [12] They believed that the war was a failure and that military action could not be achieved by force of arms.

The leading Copperheads included Clement Vanlandingham of Ohio and George W. Woodward of Pennsylvania were typical, both opposed the use of force against Confederate secession; Woodward had written in 1860 that “Slavery was intended as a special blessing to the people of the United States,” that “Secession is not disloyalty” and “I cannot condemn the South for withdrawing….I wish Pennsylvania could go with them.” [13] The efforts of the Copperheads to gain governorships in Ohio and Pennsylvania met defeat in November 1863, as the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg “undercut their theme of the war’s failure.” [14] Their efforts would persist through the 1864 Presidential election, but instead of preaching the war’s failure they would concentrate on defeating emancipation. The Copperheads, “labeled all Republicans, including Lincoln, as radicals bent upon destroying the Union and undermining the Constitution.” [15]

However, the anti-abolitionist and racist views espoused by the northern Democrat Copperheads had begun to lose their potency in the North after July of 1863 with the onset of “the New York draft riot, which shocked many northerners into a backlash against the consequences of virulent racism” [16] and the sacrifice of the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry when it assaulted Fort Wagner outside of Charleston South Carolina, which occurred “just after the Democratic rioters in New York had lynched black people and burned the Colored Orphan Asylum. Few Republican newspapers failed to point the moral: black men who fought for the Union deserved more respect than white men who fought against it.” [17]

It is also important to understand how Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg is reflective of the various intellectual and philosophical movements of the time. Even the location of the cemetery and the burial plots within it was significant. A Gettysburg lawyer, David Wills proposed to “Governor Andrew Curtain of Pennsylvania the establishment of a soldiers’ cemetery where the Union dead could be reburied with dignity and honor.” [18] The place was then outside the city, a plot of 17 acres purchased by Wills adjacent to the existing town cemetery on Cemetery Hill. That was significant culturally, for the Gettysburg Cemetery was part of a movement called the Rural Cemetery movement. The movement was part of the Greek revival in the United States and connected with the Transcendentalist movement.

The Rural Cemetery movement was launched at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, and Edward Everett was a key figure in it. Mount Auburn “took Athens’s Kerameikos as its model, since that ancient burial ground existed outside the city proper, near the groves of the Akademy, in what was still countryside.” [19] In his speech at Mount Auburn’s dedication, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted:

“The Greeks exhausted the resources of their exquisite art in adorning the habitations of the dead. They discouraged internments within the limits of their cities; and consigned their relics to shady groves, in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains, close by the favorite resorts of those who were engaged in the study of philosophy and nature, and called them, with the elegant expressiveness of their own beautiful language, cemeteries or “places of repose.” [20]

He further noted:

“Our cemeteries, rightly selected and properly arranged, may be made subservient to some of the highest purposes of religion and human duty. They may preach lessons to which none may refuse to listen and which all that live must hear. Truths may there be felt and taught, in the silence of our meditations, more persuasive and more enduring than ever flowed from human lips.” [21]

Everett in his Gettysburg oration linked what they were doing at the Soldiers’ Cemetery with the Greek tradition:

“It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives,–flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe),–the last tributes of surviving affection. Ten coffins of funereal cypress received the honorable deposit, one for each of the tribes of the city, and an eleventh in memory of the unrecognized, but not therefore unhonored, dead, and of those whose remains could not be recovered….” [22]

The layout of the cemetery, and the manner in which the dead were buried was also significant when one considers the messages of both Everett and Lincoln that day. “The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s speech, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station.” [23] In this place “some 3,577 Union soldiers (half of them unknown) from eighteen states are buried.” [24]

The speeches of Everett and Lincoln are deeply connected with Romanticism, the Greek revival and the Transcendentalist movement in the United States. Both were children of the enlightenment, and Everett, a former President of Harvard was well versed in these subjects and Lincoln, though a politician who appealed to the tenets of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln appealed to the “sacred principles of the laws of nature,” and hailed “the constitution and laws” as “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of the practical worth of liberalism.” [25]

Everett had been a mentor to some of the leading Transcendentalist thinkers of his era including Ralph Waldo Emerson who found that the experience of “Everett’s classroom gave him an entirely new direction in life.” Emerson wrote:

“Germany had created [literary] criticism in vain for us until 1820, when Edward Everett returned from his five years in Europe, and brought to Cambridge his rich results, which no one was so fitted by natural grace and splendor of his rhetoric to introduce and recommend…. The novelty of the learning lost northing in the skill and genius of its interpreter, and the rudest undergraduate found a new morning opening to him in the lecture room at Harvard.” [26]

Everett, who had previously dedicated battlefields at Bunker Hill, as well as Lexington and Concord, was at his best when dedicating battlefields and cemeteries. He spent weeks preparing his speech. Everett had studied the battle and knew it well from official reports and talks with those who fought it. Everett painted a vivid picture of the battle for his audience and connected the sacrifice of those who fought and died to preserve the Union form antiquity and from those who founded the nation. He noted why they had gathered:

“We have assembled, friends, fellow-citizens, at the invitation of the Executive of the great central State of Pennsylvania, seconded by the Governors of seventeen other loyal States of the Union, to pay the last tribute of respect to the brave men who, in the hard-fought battles of the first, second, and third days of July last, laid down their lives for the country on these hillsides and the plains before us, and whose remains have been gathered into the cemetery which we consecrate this day. As my eye ranges over the fields whose sods were so lately moistened by the blood of gallant and loyal men, I feel, as never before, how truly it was said of old that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country. I feel, as never before, how justly, from the dawn of history to the present time, men have paid the homage of their gratitude and admiration to the memory of those who nobly sacrifice their lives, that their fellow-men may live in safety and in honor. And if this tribute were ever due, to whom could it be more justly paid than to those whose last resting-place we this day commend to the blessing of Heaven and of men?” [27]

In his narrative Everett aspired to more than mere accuracy. Along “with Bancroft and other romantic historians of his time, he meant to create a tradition that would inspire as well as inform. Like the Attic orators- and dramatists- he knew the power of symbols to create a people’s political identity.” [28]

DSCN9741

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.” [29]

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.” [30]

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.” [31]

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.” [32]

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…” [33]

Lincoln delivered these 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.[34]

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.” [35]

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. 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.

The amazing thing was that in spite of everything the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that but it was the men who left lives of comfort and security like Joshua Chamberlain and so 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 realize this fact “then we can contemplate the real meaning of “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” [36]

Gettysburg_Unknowns.JPG

Now I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln 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 that hallowed ground I am again a believer. I believe that we can realize the ideal, even in our lifetime should we desire.

Notes

[1] Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels, Ballantine Books, New York. 1974 p.28

[2] Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York 1992 p.25

[3] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.407

[4] Everett, Edward Letter from Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln, (Transcription) 20 November 1863 retrieved from http://www.in.gov/judiciary/citc/files/everett-to-lincoln.pdf July 18th 2014

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lighteningp.352

[6] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.758

[8] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.757

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.764

[10] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, New York 2004 p.513

[11] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.200

[12] Harris, William C. With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington KY 1997 p.7

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.685

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.685

[15] Ibid. Harris With Charity for All p.7

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[17] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.687

[18] McPherson, James M. This Hallowed Ground Crown Publishers, New York 2003 p.137

[19] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.63

[20] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.64

[21] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.65

[22] Everett, Edward Gettysburg Address retrieved from http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/everett-gettysburg-address-speech-text/ 21 August 2014

[23] Faust, Drew Gilpin, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 2008 p.100

[24] Ibid. McPherson This Hallowed Ground p.137

[25] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening pp.406-407

[26] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.45

[27] Ibid. Everett Gettysburg Address

[28] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.51

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

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

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

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

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

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

[35] 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

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

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

Abraham Lincoln & the New Birth of Freedom

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

On this weekend which we call the “President’s Day Weekend” I think it is appropriate to remember Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. This is the last chapter of my Gettysburg text and since Lincoln is most closely connected with Emancipation and the End of Slavery I think that it is important to pause and remember his brief remarks at the dedication of the Gettysburg Soldier’s Cemetery. Those remarks are really important because they draw us back to the real source document of who we are as Americans, the Declaration of Independence. That document made the incredibly bold, and even revolutionary statement, that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln expanded those words to their logical end, that indeed all men, not just white landowners, were created equal. It is a concept that some in our country still struggle to accept. 

In a couple of weeks I will be going back to Gettysburg again with a group of my students.  The last stop on our “staff ride” is the Soldier’s cemetery. We go to the spot where it is believed that Lincoln gave his remarks and I take a few minutes to read his address. 

 

Have a great weekend and remember that freedom always comes with a price, and that the struggle for freedom, equality and justice has not ended.

Peace

Padre Steve+

gburg address 

I am always humbled when I travel to Gettysburg as I will again in a couple of weeks. It is hard to believe in that now peaceful pastoral setting that over 157,000 Americans, almost 82,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate met in a three day battle. In those three days over 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. It was the greatest number of casualties inflicted in one battle on American soil in history.

The places that the battle was fought have become legendary, for they are “hallowed ground” as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it. The places, McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Railroad Cut, Barlow’s Knoll, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, The Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Apse of Trees, the Angle and the High Water Mark are in a sense holy, or hallowed, consecrated by those who struggled there, those who lived and those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. When I take my students there I always finish at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

I think about those men of both sides, fully convinced of the rightness of their cause who fought valiantly in the struggle. That being said when I go there though my family predominantly fought for the Confederacy my heart is drawn to those men who remained loyal to the Union and those who answered the call of Abraham Lincoln to serve in a cause greater than their own interests, the great and the small alike.

Lincoln was a masterful orator who managed to rally the Union and bring hundreds of thousands of men volunteer before Gettysburg. They came for an ideal an ideal which Lincoln’s oratory was probably the most effective at articulating in a way that men would volunteer to suffer hardship, fight and die to bring about. It was well put in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels said:

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other…” [1]

On November 19th 1863 Lincoln delivered a “few words” at Gettysburg which were in all practical aspects a benediction at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. Lincoln was the second speaker at the ceremony following former Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours, a typical speech from the period.

Everett was one of the leading orators of his day. Everett was “a scholar and Ivy-League diplomat who could hold mass audiences in thrall. His voice, diction, and gestures were successfully dramatic, and he always performed his carefully written text, no matter how long, from memory.” [2]

The 270 words of Lincoln’s address are perhaps the most important of any speech or document in American history save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, in those words “Lincoln, nevertheless managed to justify the ways of democracy more than anyone, then or now.” [3]

The speech was so powerful that Everett wrote Lincoln the next day:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” [4]

The speech is short, but its eloquence is unmatched. Lincoln wrapped ideas, concepts and ideals that men have written volumes about into a speech so powerful that many have memorized it.

But few realize the context that it must be placed. Though the Union had defeated Lee’s Army at Gettysburg and Grant had taken Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in half the North was growing war weary. During the fall of 1863 after a series of inconclusive battles in northern Virginia both Lee and Meade’s armies had sent significant numbers of troops to the west, to support operations in eastern Tennessee.

Lee sent Longstreet’s First Corps, which took part in the bloody battle of Chickamauga, which “is a Cherokee word meaning “river of death.” [5] where on September 19th and 20th the Federal Army of the Cumberland under General Rosecrans “were soundly whipped at …and driven back into the strategic point of Chattanooga.” [6] The number of casualties on both sides, over 16,000 Federal and 18,000 Confederate, a “combined total of 34,634 was exceeded only the three day slaughter at Gettysburg and by the week-long series of five battles known collectively as the Seven Days.” [7] Despite the number of casualties it was one of the biggest Confederate victories of the war. A clerk in Richmond wrote “The whole South will be filled again with patriotic fervor, and in the North there will be a corresponding depression.” [8] That changed rapidly when the Union reacted quickly and reversed the strategic situation. One action taken was to deploy Oliver Howard’s XI Corps and Henry Slocum’s XII Corps west, where “they would be commanded by Joe Hooker, who was conveniently at hand and unemployed.” [9]

In the east during the following weeks “Lee and Meade, like two wounded, spent gladiators, sparred listlessly along the Rapidan. It seemed to Northerners that the fruits of Gettysburg had been thrown away.” [10] Lee sensed an opportunity to go back on the offensive against Meade’s weakened army, but his offensive was stopped on October 14th when “the Union Second Corps shattered a reckless attack by A.P. Hill’s corps at Bristoe Station, five miles south of Manassas.[11]

There was a faction in the North, the Copperheads, who were willing even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, even allowing for Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery. They “clamored for negotiations with the Confederacy to restore the Union on the basis of status quo antebellum and, until the closing months of the war charged that as long as the antislavery party remained in power the restoration of the Union could not be achieved.” [12] They believed that the war was a failure and that military action could not be achieved by force of arms.

The leading Copperheads included Clement Vallandigham of Ohio and George W. Woodward of Pennsylvania were typical, both opposed the use of force against Confederate secession; Woodward had written in 1860 that “Slavery was intended as a special blessing to the people of the United States,” that “Secession is not disloyalty” and “I cannot condemn the South for withdrawing….I wish Pennsylvania could go with them.” [13] The efforts of the Copperheads to gain governorships in Ohio and Pennsylvania met defeat in November 1863, as the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg “undercut their theme of the war’s failure.” [14] Their efforts would persist through the 1864 Presidential election, but instead of preaching the war’s failure they would concentrate on defeating emancipation. The Copperheads, “labeled all Republicans, including Lincoln, as radicals bent upon destroying the Union and undermining the Constitution.” [15]

However, the anti-abolitionist and racist views espoused by the northern Democrat Copperheads had begun to lose their potency in the North after July of 1863 with the onset of “the New York draft riot, which shocked many northerners into a backlash against the consequences of virulent racism” [16] and the sacrifice of the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry when it assaulted Fort Wagner outside of Charleston South Carolina, which occurred “just after the Democratic rioters in New York had lynched black people and burned the Colored Orphan Asylum. Few Republican newspapers failed to point the moral: black men who fought for the Union deserved more respect than white men who fought against it.” [17]

GAFac1

It is also important to understand how Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg is reflective of the various intellectual and philosophical movements of the time. Even the location of the cemetery and the burial plots within it was significant. A Gettysburg lawyer, David Wills proposed to “Governor Andrew Curtain of Pennsylvania the establishment of a soldiers’ cemetery where the Union dead could be reburied with dignity and honor.” [18] The place was then outside the city, a plot of 17 acres purchased by Wills adjacent to the existing town cemetery on Cemetery Hill. That was significant culturally, for the Gettysburg Cemetery was part of a movement called the Rural Cemetery movement. The movement was part of the Greek revival in the United States and connected with the Transcendentalist movement.

The Rural Cemetery movement was launched at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, and Edward Everett was a key figure in it. Mount Auburn “took Athens’s Kerameikos as its model, since that ancient burial ground existed outside the city proper, near the groves of the Akademy, in what was still countryside.” [19] In his speech at Mount Auburn’s dedication, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted:

“The Greeks exhausted the resources of their exquisite art in adorning the habitations of the dead. They discouraged internments within the limits of their cities; and consigned their relics to shady groves, in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains, close by the favorite resorts of those who were engaged in the study of philosophy and nature, and called them, with the elegant expressiveness of their own beautiful language, cemeteries or “places of repose.” [20]

He further noted:

“Our cemeteries, rightly selected and properly arranged, may be made subservient to some of the highest purposes of religion and human duty. They may preach lessons to which none may refuse to listen and which all that live must hear. Truths may there be felt and taught, in the silence of our meditations, more persuasive and more enduring than ever flowed from human lips.” [21]

Everett in his Gettysburg oration linked what they were doing at the Soldiers’ Cemetery with the Greek tradition:

“It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives,–flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe),–the last tributes of surviving affection. Ten coffins of funereal cypress received the honorable deposit, one for each of the tribes of the city, and an eleventh in memory of the unrecognized, but not therefore unhonored, dead, and of those whose remains could not be recovered….” [22]

The layout of the cemetery, and the manner in which the dead were buried was also significant when one considers the messages of both Everett and Lincoln that day. “The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s speech, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station.” [23] In this place “some 3,577 Union soldiers (half of them unknown) from eighteen states are buried.” [24]

The speeches of Everett and Lincoln are deeply connected with Romanticism, the Greek revival and the Transcendentalist movement in the United States. Both were children of the enlightenment, and Everett, a former President of Harvard was well versed in these subjects and Lincoln, though a politician who appealed to the tenets of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln appealed to the “sacred principles of the laws of nature,” and hailed “the constitution and laws” as “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of the practical worth of liberalism.” [25]

Everett had been a mentor to some of the leading Transcendentalist thinkers of his era including Ralph Waldo Emmerson who found that the experience of “Everett’s classroom gave him an entirely new direction in life. He wrote:

“Germany had created [literary] criticism in vain for us until 1820, when Edward Everett returned from his five years in Europe, and brought to Cambridge his rich results, which no one was so fitted by natural grace and splendor of his rhetoric to introduce and recommend….The novelty of the learning lost northing in the skill and genius of its interpreter, and the rudest undergraduate found a new morning opening to him in the lecture room at Harvard.” [26]

Everett, who had previously dedicated battlefields at Bunker Hill, as well as Lexington and Concord, was at his best when dedicating battlefields and cemeteries. He spent weeks preparing his speech. Everett had studied the battle and knew it well from official reports and talks with those who fought it. Everett painted a vivid picture of the battle for his audience and connected the sacrifice of those who fought and died to preserve the Union form antiquity and from those who founded the nation. He noted why they had gathered:

“We have assembled, friends, fellow-citizens, at the invitation of the Executive of the great central State of Pennsylvania, seconded by the Governors of seventeen other loyal States of the Union, to pay the last tribute of respect to the brave men who, in the hard-fought battles of the first, second, and third days of July last, laid down their lives for the country on these hillsides and the plains before us, and whose remains have been gathered into the cemetery which we consecrate this day. As my eye ranges over the fields whose sods were so lately moistened by the blood of gallant and loyal men, I feel, as never before, how truly it was said of old that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country. I feel, as never before, how justly, from the dawn of history to the present time, men have paid the homage of their gratitude and admiration to the memory of those who nobly sacrifice their lives, that their fellow-men may live in safety and in honor. And if this tribute were ever due, to whom could it be more justly paid than to those whose last resting-place we this day commend to the blessing of Heaven and of men?” [27]

In his narrative Everett aspired to more than mere accuracy. Along “with Bancroft and other romantic historians of his time, he meant to create a tradition that would inspire as well as inform. Like the Attic orators- and dramatists- he knew the power of symbols to create a people’s political identity.” [28]

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.”

gburgaddressmemorial

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.” [29]

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.” [30]

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.” [31]

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.” [32]

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…” [33]

Lincoln delivered these 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.[34]

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.” [35]

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. 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.

Gettysburg_Unknowns.JPG

The amazing thing was that in spite of everything the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that but it was the men who left lives of comfort and security like Joshua Chamberlain and so 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 realize this fact “then we can contemplate the real meaning of “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” [36]

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Now I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln 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 that hallowed ground I am again a believer. I believe that we can realize the ideal, even in our lifetime should we desire.

Peace

Padre Steve+

[1] Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels, Ballantine Books, New York. 1974 p.28

[2] Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York 1992 p.25

[3] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.407

[4] Everett, Edward Letter from Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln, (Transcription) 20 November 1863 retrieved from http://www.in.gov/judiciary/citc/files/everett-to-lincoln.pdf July 18th 2014

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lighteningp.352

[6] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.758

[8] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.757

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.764

[10] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, New York 2004 p.513

[11] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.200

[12] Harris, William C. With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington KY 1997 p.7

[13] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.685

[14] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.685

[15] Ibid. Harris With Charity for All p.7

[16] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.686

[17] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.687

[18] McPherson, James M. This Hallowed Ground Crown Publishers, New York 2003 p.137

[19] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.63

[20] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.64

[21] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.65

[22] Everett, Edward Gettysburg Address retrieved from http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/everett-gettysburg-address-speech-text/ 21 August 2014

[23] Faust, Drew Gilpin, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York 2008 p.100

[24] Ibid. McPherson This Hallowed Ground p.137

[25] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening pp.406-407

[26] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.45

[27] Ibid. Everett Gettysburg Address

[28] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.51

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

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

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

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

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

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

[35] 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

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

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

Reembracing the New Birth of Freedom

gburg address

I am always humbled when I travel to Gettysburg as I did a week and a half ago. It is hard to believe in that now peaceful pastoral setting that over 157,000 Americans, almost 82,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate met in a three day battle. In those three days over 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. It was the greatest number of casualties inflicted in one battle on American soil in history.

The places that the battle was fought have become legendary, for they are “hallowed ground” as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it. The places, McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Railroad Cut, Barlow’s Knoll, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, The Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Apse of Trees, the Angle and the High Water Mark are in a sense holy, or hallowed, consecrated by those who struggled there, those who lived and those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. When I take my students there I always finish at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

I think about those men of both sides, fully convinced of the rightness of their cause who fought valiantly in the struggle. That being said when I go there though my family predominantly fought for the Confederacy my heart is drawn to those men who remained loyal to the Union and those who answered the call of Abraham Lincoln to serve in a cause greater than their own interests, the great and the small alike.

Lincoln was a masterful orator who managed to rally the Union and bring hundreds of thousands of men volunteer before Gettysburg. They came for an ideal an ideal which Lincoln’s oratory was probably the most effective at articulating in a way that men would volunteer to suffer hardship, fight and die to bring about. It was well put in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels said:

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other…” [1]

On November 19th 1863 Lincoln delivered a “few words” at Gettysburg which were in all practical aspects a benediction at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. Lincoln was the second speaker at the ceremony following former Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours, a typical speech from the period.

Everett was one of the leading orators of his day. Everett was “a scholar and Ivy-League diplomat who could hold mass audiences in thrall. His voice, diction, and gestures were successfully dramatic, and he always performed his carefully written text, no matter how long, from memory.” [2]

The 270 words of Lincoln’s address are perhaps the most important of any speech or document in American history save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, in those words “Lincoln, nevertheless managed to justify the ways of democracy more than anyone, then or now.” [3]

The speech was so powerful that Everett wrote Lincoln the next day:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” [4]

The speech is short, but its eloquence is unmatched. Lincoln wrapped ideas, concepts and ideals that men have written volumes about into a speech so powerful that many have memorized it.

But few realize the context that it must be placed. Though the Union had defeated Lee’s Army at Gettysburg and Grant had taken Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in half the North was growing war weary. During the fall of 1863 after a series of inconclusive battles in northern Virginia both Lee and Meade’s armies had sent significant numbers of troops to the west, to support operations in eastern Tennessee.

Lee sent Longstreet’s First Corps, which took part in the bloody battle of Chickamauga, which “is a Cherokee word meaning “river of death.” [5] where on September 19th and 20th the Federal Army of the Cumberland under General Rosecrans “were soundly whipped at …and driven back into the strategic point of Chattanooga.” [6] The number of casualties on both sides, over 16,000 Federal and 18,000 Confederate, a “combined total of 34,634 was exceeded only the three day slaughter at Gettysburg and by the week-long series of five battles known collectively as the Seven Days.” [7] Despite the number of casualties it was one of the biggest Confederate victories of the war. A clerk in Richmond wrote “The whole South will be filled again with patriotic fervor, and in the North there will be a corresponding depression.” [8] That changed rapidly when the Union reacted quickly and reversed the strategic situation. One action taken was to deploy Oliver Howard’s XI Corps and Henry Slocum’s XII Corps west, where “they would be commanded by Joe hooker, who was conveniently at hand and unemployed.” [9]

In the east during the following weeks “Lee and Meade, like two wounded, spent gladiators, sparred listlessly along the Rapidan. It seemed to Northerners that the fruits of Gettysburg had been thrown away.” [10] Lee sensed an opportunity to go back on the offensive against Meade’s weakened army, but his offensive was stopped on October 14th when “the Union Second Corps shattered a reckless attack by A.P. Hill’s corps at Bristoe Station, five miles south of Manassas.[11]

There was a faction in the North, the Copperheads, who were willing even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, even allowing for Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery. The efforts of the Copperheads to gain governorships in Ohio and Pennsylvania met defeat in November 1863, although their efforts would persist through the 1864 Presidential election.

However, the anti-abolitionist and racist views espoused by the northern Democrat Copperheads had begun to lose their potency in the North after July of 1863 with the onset of “the New York draft riot, which shocked many northerners into a backlash against the consequences of virulent racism” [12] and the sacrifice of the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry when it assaulted Fort Wagoner outside of Charleston South Carolina, which occurred “just after the Democratic rioters in New York had lynched black people and burned the Colored Orphan Asylum. Few Republican newspapers failed to point the moral: black men who fought for the Union deserved more respect than white men who fought against it.” [13]

The speeches of Everett and Lincoln are deeply connected with Romanticism, the Greek revival and the Transcendentalist movement in the United States. Both were children of the enlightenment, and Everett, a former President of Harvard was well versed in these subjects and Lincoln, though a politician who appealed to the tenets of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln appealed to the “sacred principles of the laws of nature,” and hailed “the constitution and laws” as “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of the practical worth of liberalism.” [14]

Everett had been a mentor to some of the leading Transcendentalist thinkers of his era including Ralph Waldo Emmerson who found that the experience of “Everett’s classroom gave him an entirely new direction in life. He wrote:

“Germany had created [literary] criticism in vain for us until 1820, when Edward Everett returned from his five years in Europe, and brought to Cambridge his rich results, which no one was so fitted by natural grace and splendor of his rhetoric to introduce and recommend….The novelty of the learning lost northing in the skill and genius of its interpreter, and the rudest undergraduate found a new morning opening to him in the lecture room at Harvard.” [15]

Everett, who had previously dedicated battlefields at Bunker Hill, as well as Lexington and Concord, was at his best when dedicating battlefields and cemeteries. He spent weeks preparing his speech. Everett had studied the battle and knew it well from official reports and talks with those who fought it. Everett painted a vivid picture of the battle for his audience and connected the sacrifice of those who fought and died to preserve the Union form antiquity and from those who founded the nation. In his narrative Everett aspired to more than mere accuracy. Along “with Bancroft and other romantic historians of his time, he meant to create a tradition that would inspire as well as inform. Like the Attic orators- and dramatists- he knew the power of symbols to create a people’s political identity.” [16]

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. 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….”that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[17]

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.” [18]

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.” [19]

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…” [20]

Lincoln delivered these 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.[21]

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.” [22]

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. 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.

The amazing thing was that in spite of everything the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that but it was the men who left lives of comfort and security like Joshua Chamberlain and so 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.

Now I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln 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 that hallowed ground I am again a believer. I believe that we can realize the ideal, even in our lifetime should we desire.

[1] Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels, Ballantine Books, New York. 1974 p.28

[2] Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York 1992 p.25

[3] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.407

[4] Everett, Edward Letter from Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln, (Transcription) 20 November 1863 retrieved from http://www.in.gov/judiciary/citc/files/everett-to-lincoln.pdf July 18th 2014

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lighteningp.352

[6] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.758

[8] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.757

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.764

[10] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, New York 2004 p.513

[11] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.200

[12] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.686

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.687

[14] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening pp.406-407

[15] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.45

[16] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.51

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

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

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

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

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

[22] 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

 

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