I have spent 10 weeks with our 16th president in a class called “Lincoln’s Statecraft & Rhetoric.” I feel a patriotic debt to President Abraham Lincoln, because he saved the Union and purified it of slavery, and also a personal debt, because his speeches, writings and biography have taught me about the methods and ideas proper to American statesmanship. The only way to requite his contribution to our politics is to secure it against the enemies of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Certainly for better, my youth disqualifies me from shifting our national life more than one vote this way or that. But I have some space in this newspaper, so I’d like to honor Lincoln by commenting on my most recent reading assignment — his address given in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on Nov. 19, 1863.
“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.” The first sentence moves across time, beginning with an allusion to the Bible’s 19th psalm and ending by invoking Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of natural equality. Linking the two is the word “conceived,” a reference at once to the Immaculate Conception and to rationality. America’s birth was pure, because it was thought of and articulated — conceived — in good ideals by certain minds.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” How? A passage in Lincoln’s first inaugural address assists us. The plainest cause of the Civil War was the South’s secession from the Union, and, as Lincoln said at the war’s outset, “the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.” Whoever spurns this doctrine, or secedes from a nation practicing it, “does of necessity fly to anarchy or despotism.” Anarchy — because secessionists have no principle to refute future secessionists, and on and on until there is no government at all.
Despotism — because the equality of men requires them to have an equal say in government. A ruling minority, when questioned, will ultimately assert the inequality of men to justify its rule. It will assert a self-evident falsehood. The Civil War tested whether men were fit to govern themselves by testing whether the American experiment in self-government could survive a challenge that no true government can fail to survive.
“We are met on a great battlefield 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.” But, Lincoln adds, “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.”
What to make of this memorial meditation on memory? Lincoln abjures any power to hallow the battlefield on which the soldiers fought and died. But he sees an opportunity to honor their sacrifice by pursuing their unfinished work — work that extends beyond this particular battle to every nation.
What dignity does this chance confer? The living take only “increased devotion” from the soldiers’ “last full measure of devotion.” Dying in war is an unequaled contribution. But why is it so important that the world “can never forget what they did here?” Because of “that cause” to which the soldiers devoted their lives and deaths. In Lincoln’s words, “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.”
In an earlier speech, Lincoln argued that maintaining America’s free institutions might be harder even than establishing them. He thought America’s government to be the best government, but when Lincoln gave this earlier speech in 1838, the hardest part of living under America’s free and constitutional government — preserving it — was a then-unperformed task.
The soldiers performed that task in the most devoted manner possible. They cannot be forgotten, because they made the greatest sacrifice for the highest political good. They prove that men will die to defend their once won, now threatened constitutional liberty.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .