Few 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.
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.
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. 
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.”
“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.
The 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.” (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.)
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. 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.
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.
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.” 
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.
That 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.
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