lincoln-delivering-the-gettysburg-address-war-is-hell-storeFew actors in history have been hallowed in as many points of the political compass as Abraham Lincoln. During the 1930s, portraits of Lincoln appeared at New York City rallies of American fascists and in the publications of American Communists. He was also the favourite of the most reactionary industrialists and the most advanced liberals of the time. “Getting Right with Lincoln,” as the historian David Donald has described it, has been requisite for all political elements in the United States.[1]

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is widely regarded as the definitive description and rationale of American nationhood and is the cornerstone of his fame. It has been memorized and declaimed by generations of schoolchildren. Its cadenced phrases are part of the American vernacular and have moved millions around the world.

One might wonder why this short and rather abstract composition, hardly remarked upon at the time it was given at Gettysburg a few months after the great battle there, has achieved such importance. Part of the answer is surely Lincoln’s great rhetorical skill. In the Gettysburg Address (and other orations) he performs successfully the difficult feat of having it both ways. He appears in the famous brief oration as both the conservator of the sacred old Union and the herald of “a new birth of freedom.” Rhetorically, he encompasses right and left, the revered past and the longed-for ideal future.

Sanctification of the Address has not gone entirely unchallenged in America, however. The iconoclastic Henry Louis Mencken, writing in 1920, described Lincoln as “the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality.” Of the Gettysburg Address, Mencken wrote:

It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.[2]

Edgar Lee Masters, a poet who immortalized his and Lincoln’s home region of Illinois in Spoon River Anthology, was so troubled by the Lincoln legacy that he devoted an entire book to it (1931). Of the Address, Masters wrote:

Lincoln carefully avoided one half of the American story…The Gettysburg oration, therefore, remains a prose poem, but in the inferior sense that one must not inquire into its truth…One must read it apart from the facts…Lincoln dared not face the facts at Gettysburg…He was unable to deal realistically with the history of his country, even if the occasion had been one where the truth was acceptable to the audience. Thus we have in the Gettysburg Address that refusal of the truth which is written all over the American character and its expressions. The war then being waged was not glorious, it was brutal and hateful and mean minded. [3]

Mencken and Masters were reflecting, in part, revulsion at the American entry into World War I, which had been blessed by Lincolnian rhetoric as a crusade “to save the world for democracy.”[4]

“Difficult to imagine anything more untrue.” “Refusal of the truth.” These are strong charges. Coming from a poet and a cultural critic, rather than from patriotic orators, political advocates, or nationalist historians, they deserve consideration. One would think that the Address should be considered less important and less definitive than the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. These were, after all, not just the words of one man, but solemn acts of the whole American people. Indeed important events in world history. But, in fact, the Declaration has come to be perceived and valued in American public discourse wholly through the interpretation that Lincoln put upon it at Gettysburg. The Declaration has been absorbed into the Address. The Declaration itself is seldom read beyond the first sentences and Americans are often surprised to see what it actually says and to have pointed out what it actually signaled in historical events.

“Four score and seven years ago,” a “new nation” was “brought forth” (note Lincoln’s biblical and almost mystical language). This new nation, “conceived in liberty,” had been dedicated to a “proposition” of equality. By this formulation, since the new nation was “brought forth” in 1776, the Constitution adopted in 1787-1789 is merely an unfolding of the “proposition” in the Declaration. The Declaration and the Constitution are now conflated. The Constitution is merely the implementation of the Declaration—subservient to the proposition to which the new nation had already been dedicated.[5]

lincoln-factsThe two documents actually do not depend on or convey any dedication of a people to equality, either in text or context. They reflect, for the most part, the language and spirit of Anglo-American legal and parliamentary traditions. The Declaration created no new nation. It was an agreed-upon statement of why the thirteen united colonies “are and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” Its operative premise is not the equality of all men but that governments should rest upon “the consent of the governed.” It was a Declaration of Independence, not a Declaration of the Rights of Man, having more in common with Magna Carta than with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What the Constitution established might in some sense be called a nation, but it was customarily referred to before Lincoln (and even in Lincoln’s earlier public documents) as a “Union.”

Something had happened to the Declaration between the American founding and Lincoln at Gettysburg–the French Revolution. The transition was perfectly illustrated by Karl Marx, who in January 1865 wrote an address in praise of Lincoln for an “International Conference of Workers.” Marx described the American war as a contest between “the labor of the emigrant” and the aggression of “the slave driver” and lamented that an evil rebellion had sprung up in the “one great democratic republic whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued.”[6] (A different European reaction to the American war occurred in the same month that Lincoln gave his Address. Father John B. Bannon, chaplain in the Confederate Army, had a series of audiences with Pius IX. Father Bannon emphasized the justice and conservatism of the Southern cause, the religious devotion of the Southern people, and their friendly reception of Catholics in contrast to the bitterly hostile Protestant North. His efforts resulted in a kindly papal letter to President Jefferson Davis and a mission to Ireland to preach against Northern recruiting of cannon fodder there, something which is glimpsed in the recent film Gangs of New York.)[7]

Lincoln begins the Address with language that is directly patterned on the King James Bible so familiar to his audience. “Four score and seven years” rather than “eighty-seven;” “brought forth” rather than “established.” Thus he invokes the ancient and sacred: the American Union as a special manifestation of God’s plan for the improvement of humanity. The first Puritan settlers of Massachusetts had named themselves “a City upon a Hill” and “a beacon to all mankind.”

As historians have shown abundantly in recent decades, this theme, projected rhetorically to an ideal America, was already well-developed in the post-Puritan culture of the North, especially in New England and New Englander settled areas of the West.[8] It is amply displayed in such highbrow places as the writings of Emerson and in such lowbrow places as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The notion of the special role of the United States in history has become a powerful and lasting motivation and rationalization. It has appeared in countless sermons down to the present day and in the rhetoric of President George W. Bush in the 21st century.

Lincoln thus, in practical terms, rhetorically nailed down one of the two most important and dedicated of his constituencies and one of the two most forceful ideological elements of the North. The second, like the first, disdained the Jeffersonian limited government ideals of the Confederacy and of Lincoln’s Northern opponents. The second group, which Lincoln must capture and merge with the first to make a success of the Address, is made up of Marx’s “emigrants.”

Historians have long noted the influence of German refugees from the revolutions of 1848 in the founding of the Republican Party and in Lincoln’s election, but usually without allowing its true weight. Between 1840 and 1860 the total free American population increased by one-third from immigrants alone—including at least a million and a half Germans. These settled mainly in Lincoln’s Midwest and in 1860 made up from 8 percent to 17 per cent of the population of the Midwestern states.[9]

Lincoln recognized this constituency early on by secretly purchasing a German language newspaper and subsidizing others. German delegates were prominent in the convention that nominated Lincoln and in the campaign orators who stimulated the grassroots on his behalf. It appears that these immigrants tipped the balance, swinging the traditionally Democratic Midwest into the Republican column and making Lincoln’s election possible.

The German revolutionaries brought with them an aggressive drive to realize in America the goals that had been defeated in their homeland. Their drive was toward “revolution and national unification” in the words of the Party of the Left at the Frankfurt Convention. The most prominent among them, Carl Schurz, expressed disappointment at the non-ideological nature of American politics and vowed to change that.[10]

The Germans brought into to the American regional conflict and into Republican rhetoric a diagnosis of class conflict (crusade to overthrow the “slave drivers”) and a revolutionary élan. They also contributed out of proportion to the Northern military effort. Freidrich Engels remarked: “Had it not been for the experienced soldiers who had entered America after the European revolution, especially from Germany, the organization of the Union army would have taken still longer than it did.” [11]

Thus Lincoln consolidated his base, justified and sanctified the Northern cause and victory both as preservation of the hallowed old and a birth of the new. He created an image of the United States that has had and continues to have incalculable effects on American public life and, indeed, on the world.

11-10-abraham-lincoln-ftrThat Lincoln’s accomplishment was a revolution and not a “preservation of the Union” (whether one finds the revolution pleasing or troubling) is beautifully illustrated by an incident in Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War, the Civil War memoir of Confederate General Richard Taylor. Taylor was a learned man acquainted in the highest circles, an able though not a professional soldier. He also possessed an active sense of humour. In May 1865, after the surrender of the main Confederate armies and the capture of his brother-in-law Jefferson Davis, Taylor found himself in command of a small army in Alabama. He opened surrender negotiations with the nearest Union commander, General Canby. With one staff officer Taylor went to meet Canby in a hand-driven railroad sled under a flag of truce. The formalities of capitulation completed, courteous federal officers invited the hungry Confederates to join them at dinner. Taylor relates what happened next:

There was, as ever, a skeleton at the feast, in the person of a general officer who had recently left Germany to become a citizen and soldier of the United States. This person, with the strong accent and idioms of the Fatherland, comforted me by assurances that we of the South would speedily recognize our ignorance and errors…and rejoice in the results of the war…I apologized meekly for my ignorance, on the ground that my ancestors had come from England to Virginia in 1608, and, in the short intervening period of two hundred and fifty-odd years, had found no time to transmit to me correct ideas of the duties of American citizenship. Moreover, my grandfather, commanding the 9th Virginia regiment in our Revolutionary army, had assisted in the defeat and capture of the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, and I lamented that he had not, by association with these worthies, enlightened his understanding. My friend smiled blandly, and assured me of his willingness to instruct me.[12]

Modestly, Taylor did not mention that his father had been President of the United States.

Republished with gracious permission of the Abbeville Institute (May 2014).

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1. David H. Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered. New York: Knopf, 1956.
2. The Vintage Mencken. New York: Vintage Books, 1958, pp. 79-80.
3. Edgar Lee Masters. Lincoln: The Man. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931, pp. 478-479. This book was recently republished by Foundation for American Education Press.
4. See Richard M. Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003.
5. I am drawing here on the brilliant analyses of Lincoln’s rhetoric by the late Professor M.E. Bradford. Bradford’s half-dozen ground-breaking Lincoln essays are scattered through almost as many of his books. See especially Melvin E. Bradford, A Better Guide Than Reason. Lasalle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1979, pp. 29-57 and 85-203; and Remembering Who We Are. Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 1985, pp. 143-156.
On the dissolvable nature of the Union see Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. New York: Vintage Books, vol. 1, pp. 143-156.
6. The manifesto is printed in Philip S. Foner, ed., Abraham Lincoln: Selections from His Writings. New York: International Press, 1944, pp. 93-94. International Press was an organ of the U.S. Communist Party.
7. Phillip Thomas Tucker, The Confederacy’s Fighting Chaplain: Father John B. Bannon. Tuscaloosa, AL and London: University of Alabama Press, pp. 157-178.
8. In general American historians have paid relatively little attention to the antebellum North, implicitly postulating it as the American norm, and the South as an un-American anomaly to be explained.
However, recently attention has been paid to Northern society, showing an aggressive economic and cultural agenda that was something new.
Among other things, these works have demonstrated the power of Northern forces desperate to prevent a free trade South and by emphasizing the racism of the politicians and soldiers of the Union, have cast new light on the supposed benevolence of the campaign against slavery. See Anne Norton, Alternative America’s; Ernest L. Tuveson, Redeemer Nation; Harlow Sheidley, Massachusetts Conservative Leaders and the Transformation of America; Richard F. Bensel, Yankee Leviathan; Susan-Mary Grant, North Over South; Joan P. Melish, Disowning Slavery; Charles Adams. When in the Course of Human Events; Thomas Dilorenzo, The Real Lincoln.
9. Charlotte L. Brancaforte, ed., The German Forty-Eighters in The United States. New York, Peter Lang, 1989; A.E. Zucker, ed., The Forty-Eighters; Political Refugees of the German Revolution of 1848. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1950; American Historical Review, 16: 774ff, and 47:51ff.; Journal of American History, 19:192ff. and 29:55ff.
10. Hans L. Trefhousse, Carl Schurz: A Biography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
11. Engels quoted in the Lincoln pamphlet cited in footnote 6.
12. Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Reminiscences of the Late War. Nashville, TN: Sanders Southern Reprints, 1998. Originally published 1879

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8 replies to this post
  1. What a truly outstanding article; thank you Dr. Wilson, once again. I am forwarding this to all my fellow Yankee family members here in New England accordingly. We were taught a lot of balderdash and malarkey throughout our public school “educations.” It’s never too late to learn the truth.

  2. Dr. Wilson, in destroying certain shibboleths, always has the decency to replace them with the truth. As a student of history, I am grateful.

  3. No question that the basic countours of this essay are sound, however as a Lincoln supporter, I would like to offer up the following reflections:

    Lincoln and Pious IX were actually quite similar in many respects, albeit the circumstances under which they acted would carry them into realms unknown and undesired.

    Lincoln began his political career as an idealist whose ideals found their representation in the American Constitution above all. He is clearly troubled by the radicalism of Abolitionism and of those elements who either take states rights to a great extreme or who wish to ‘nationalize’ the slave question. Lincoln seeks to rescue America from conflict by reaffirming and strengthening Constitutional government, which dileneates the legal bounds within which partisan political conflict can take place in such a manner as to be productive. This is clear from his Lyceum Address.

    Despite his desires, Southern states react to his ellection as President by initiating secession, which triggers war. Lincoln’s stated aim was to preserve the Union. While I do not question the accuracey of ulterior aims, be they economic or moral, the stated aim cannot be lightly dismissed. I also do not wish to go into the minutea of who fired the first shots and why and what-for. These are details which do not overshadow the underlying premise. Of course, we can venture into the question of the morality of the act, and whether it was in accord with the natural rights of Man – but I think that Lincoln considered the practical achievement of the Constitution of the United States so grand a thing that no moral act was more important than its’ defense.

    Finally, Lincoln did not ever contend that the South was not part of the American nation, nor deny to it its’ specific qualities. It is enough to look at the Second Inaugural. We may believe this to be the case because the tragedy and ruin of war magnifies the abstract qualities of political definitions. In view of the very real human cost of war, “nations” or “unions” or “founding principles” evaporate in favor of empathy towards the real suffering of a people and feelings of attachment to a native region.

    This does not, however, alter the cold political facts of the matter.

    Pious IX, on the other hand, entered his tenure hailed as a liberal reformer in an age of prevailing liberal sentiment on the European continent. It is very risky, as the author of this text does, to conflate the Pope’s letter to Presidenet Jefferson Davis as an endorsement of the Confederate cause. Pope Pious IX was principly concerned with securing the rights of Catholic worshippers where-ever they might live – this was his foreign policy. To do this, one cannot pick and chose sides in a war. One must accept political reality and work with it – particularly if one is the Pope.

    Those who interpret the Pope’s letter as a sign of support fail to notice that, for example, many Italian nationalists also assumed that the Pope supported their aspirations until it became clear that he would not agree to a wider war with Austria for a cause which may or may not have been a matter of Italian national interest, but was clearly not a matter of Catholic interest.

    The same can be said for the Pope’s Accomodamento with Tsarist Russia. Polish revolutionaries, including many clerics, were aghast, but the Pope was not – contrary to what they thought – proclaiming support for the Tsar; he was proclaiming support for the rule of law and hoped that, by doing so, he would be better able to secure religious freedom for Polish Catholics under the law.

    That Pious IX attempts to pursue liberal reforms under existing orders failed, that revolution and bloodshed marked his tenure throughout Europe is not dissimilar to the fate of President Lincoln’s endeavors. Lincoln wished for the burning questions of his age to be resolved within the Constitutional framework the Fathers made. Like the Pope, he discovered that the law the Fathers made was no longer in the hearts of the people – he predicted as much in his Lyceum Address, which is why he proposed a “political religion” to restore it.

    As to the German revolutionaries and Marx; no doubt this element was present – but it did not influence the whole of Lincoln’s political thought, but rather provided (at best) a convenient component within his political coalition. Lincoln did not reciprocate Marx’s endorsement, because he was not interested in revolution, only in Constitution.

    As an aside, Marx was only right in proportion to the extent to which the Old World was corrupt and dying. Nietzsche noted this best; which is why he was such a pessimist. He recognized that Marxism was an outgrowth of desperation on the part of Europeans.

    Sometimes, those who wish to use Lincoln to support their views (liberal, Marxist, neoconservative) fail to notice that Lincoln above all aimed to preserve a system of government – and it was not simply “popular soveriegnty” – far from it. The “government of the people, by the people and for the people” of which he speaks is not “popular soveriegnty” as Douglas understood it. It is self-government under the Constitution.

    This is the “logic” behind the “poetry.” The South is not only part of the American nation, but it is the cradle of that nation given how many of the Founding generation originated in the South, and how instrumental the South was in creating the Constitution that Lincoln preserved.

  4. I was at Gettysburg recently; a few things struck me. One was how Lincoln, not a particularly religious person, always only seems to invoke ” God ” for rhetorical credibility . Another was that “the Union” was paramount above all and that slavery, in a veiled reference to “all men are created equal’ was of secondary importance. Empire building was the thing. The Colored Troops are buried there separately in fact. But perhaps , most of all, as you view memorials to troops from Illinois, New York, Ohio or Massachusetts you realize the staggering cost of Northern manpower it took to prosecute this war against fellow Americans. It is highly unlikely Mr. Lincoln’s War can be viewed as a success on any level. Good article.

  5. “The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal it’s desire for economic control of the Southern States.” Charles Dickens 1862

  6. Cutting through the “Lincoln was good for our country” fog Wilson over the years has much to offer. Most of our analysis is very unsatisfying and goes off track in ideolgy, sentiment, political theory warp, agenda, historiography and warped intellectual analysis. Readers should investigate ME Bradford for even greater deeper perspectives than Wilson on what Lincoln was about and what his “poetry”really meant and what it really accomplished. Prof Thomad Dilorenzo simplifies it for everybody in his lectures and books and Dr. Mel Bradford was a brilliant rhetoric scholar whose breadth of historic and literary understanding and Vanderbilt southern agrarian formation helps us see through the modernism and “Constitution” ambitions and underlying basic political idelogy that made up the complex scarey character Lincoln. Recent Baltimore news and current political responses are remnants of the Lincoln strategy and success. Its astounding how easily we are supposed to accept as heroic and a mark of greatness what his grand ambitions and poetry and conniving choice to go to war wrought as he applied in trying to “save the constitution”. Why is this even a summation of what happened ….. Jefferson Davis and the new independent southern group of leaders of states that wanted independence from the northern culture set up an identical constitution in a matter of weeks? These principles were probably in Americas DNA by this point …and smaller independent republics probably wouldve even brought the slavery injustice to a peaceful and permanent yet culturally positive impactful end–like the rest of the world had done.Thomas jefferson alluded early on if it ever it were to come to this (some states want to break off independently) to let them go .We’ve been made to think it was like a divine monarchical prerogative that gave Lincoln his authority to wipe out the south to protect this empirical sense of destiny of theconstitution”.Let them go wish them well” instead of 800,000 plus deaths…an entire “cradle” of our culture burned and destroyed “total war” big nationalized government…social planning, income taxes, federal bank system returned,national improvevent programs…empire expansion,govt Indian massacres just a few “fruits” of Lincolns leadership to bring a little more perspective to why Wilson has points that our era needs to reconsider for a serious reality check of modern “culture”. At the core Lincoln was just a politician even though a masterful one. The gift of rhetorical flourish is a gift that is just plain dangerous in the being of a masterful politician type of soul! We need to be” wary of these kinds “-which was a major point of Americas founding “politicians”.

  7. Well,
    I can see I’m outnumbered, understandably so. I think that the unfortunate direction that the United States took on account of the Civil War effectively putting an end to several tools of federalism such as nullification likely impacts this negative view of Lincoln today. Naturally the suffering of the South during the War does as well.

    Harry Jaffa once ventured the view that had the Confederacy won, then it would have allied itself to Nazi Germany in the XXth century. I think this opinion, though of course a hypothetical, is a good example of the perils of “if, then” history (which I myself engage in often – all of us interested in politics do). I respect Dr. Jaffa very much as a scholar and think Crisis of the House Divided is a masterpiece – but by his very own writings, Dr. Jaffa knows that a patriot like Steven Douglas had political views totally incompatable with Hitlerism, and that to venture a future alliance between the political ideals that came to rest and the foundation of the Confederacy and those of the Nazis is over-reach.

    Likewise, I think that many on the other side of the spectrum do likewise. Lincoln was not, to my mind, fighting to overthrow Federalism, to weaken the 10th amendment, to expand Federal powers. His penultimate goal was to preserve the Constitutional Union. I cannot imagine him living in modern America smug and self-content that this Union is now an UnConstitutional Union.

    Venturing into “if,then” territory is inevitable – but let us remember a very simple maxim:

    If the North and the South had simply resolved to continue their dispute within the Constitutional framework, then there would have been no Civil War.

    The result of a continuation of legal constitutional government MIGHT have been that Slavery would exist to this day. It might also have been peaceful secession (of either North or South) in future. Who knows?

    A vast array of forces conspired to throw America into a war rather than keep her on track as a Constitutional Republic.

    Often times, in politics, we must accept a horribly unpleasant reality and tailor political action to it. Lincoln was not born planning to destroy the South, just as Southerners were not born planning to exploit the Negro.

    Discussing politic before war is supremely urgent because discussing politics during war is practically impossible, while discussing politics after a war is always tragically emotional.

  8. With the utmost intellectual respect I find this article to be typical of American conservatism mainly that secessionism is a conservative idea. This is I think incorrect. Just as it is incorrect that New England were all pro Union, there were plenty of Copperheads in (formerly loyalist) areas of New England. But i think American Unionism is a conservative principle based on the most conservative of the Founders (Russell Kirk gave me this idea) John Adams and his Federalist Party ( Kirk notes that Federalism was a type of Conservatism). In other words I defend American unionism for the same reason British conservatives defend their Union. It will help us overcome our differences and make us be unselfish citizens and be a sovereign national country.

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