Liberal education ought to be less a matter of becoming well-read than a matter of learning to read well, of acquiring arts of awareness, the interpretative or “trivial” arts. Some works, written by men who are productive masters of these arts, are exemplary for their interpretative application. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is such a text.
Liberal education ought to be less a matter of becoming well read than a matter of learning to read well, of acquiring arts of awareness, the interpretative or “trivial” arts. Some works, written by men who are productive masters of these arts, are exemplary for their interpretative application. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is such a text, and the following reading did indeed begin as an exercise in a language tutorial in Annapolis. But although an exercise, it was never the less done on the hypothesis essential to liberal study: that what the author wrote then might be true even now.
I. The Speech As A Whole
It is probably best to begin by observing what is most obvious about this “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg” (p. 734)—its brevity. It consists of ten sentences, which can be spoken in a little over two minutes. We know from Lincoln himself that he chose his format quite deliberately. When Everett generously wrote to him; “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,” Lincoln answered, “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one” (p. 737).
Edward Everett had been chosen to be the main speaker at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, on ground bought by the eighteen Northern states which had lost men in the battle there. Lincoln, as chief of state, had been invited only two weeks before the ceremony. Everett courteously sent Lincoln his own two-hour speech, composed in the classicizing style for which he, a professor of Greek, was famous, so that Lincoln could consider it in writing his own. We might then expect Lincoln’s speech to be composed as a counterpoise to Everett’s; in fact, it seems to be a tacit and tactful repudiation of the classical rhetorical tradition, not only in style, which is (in contrast to Everett’s Latinate dactyls) English and iambic, but in a deeper way. For Everett’s speech was explicitly modelled on Pericles’s Funeral Oration as given by Thucydides, but Lincoln can be contrasted with Thucydides’s Pericles precisely as an American with an Athenian statesman, as a republican leader with an oligarch, that is, as a political teacher with a master manipulator.
The Gettysburg Address will, accordingly, turn out to be a distillation of Lincoln’s political philosophy, which he, on this occasion as on many others, attempted to infuse into the nation at large, a nation distinguished by the fact that its prosperity “has a philosophical cause” (p. 513). It is for this reason that the written versions of the speech have no formal salutation, just as its body does not contain the pronoun “I.” The very brevity that made its ten sentences at the time so fugitive in the hearing makes them a “permanent possession” in later readings. For because of it the speech is readily learned by heart and is, in fact, learned by heart by many school children. That means that it may succeed in lodging in the heart, in the form of sound sentiment, those very propositions, essential to the national life, which are too difficult—and perhaps too dubious—to be continually kept in mind. Lincoln recognized that “In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything.” Lincoln’s rhetoric aims at the conversion of political principle into “moral sentiment” (p. 401).
Consequently, as a scanning of the grand framework of this little speech shows, Lincoln makes his brief words poignant with a world of meaning. In time it spans the past (“Four score and seven years ago”), the present (“Now we are engaged in a great civil war”), and the future (“this nation . . . shall have a new birth of freedom”), and in space it comprises the battleground on which it is delivered (in the middle sentences), the continent on which the nation was born (in the first sentence), and the earth which it is to save (in the last sentence.)
II. The First Paragraph
Lincoln begins: “Four score and seven years ago.” “Four score,” With its long oh’s, sounds a more mournful, solemn note than could the words “eighty-seven years,” but the choice of the phrase is not only a matter of sound; it also carries a special meaning. It is the language of the Bible, as in Psalm 90:10:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
With the psalm in mind the phrase implies: just beyond the memory of anyone now alive, too long ago for living memory. Now, we know that from youth on Lincoln was concerned with a peculiarly American danger: the death of sound political passion. In his speech on “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” of 1838, Lincoln drew a clear parallel with the early community of Christians, whose danger lay in the fact that the generation of disciples and eye-witnesses had been followed by a second generation which had only heard by word of mouth, by a third which had only read of Christ, and by a fourth which had begun to forget. So in the American community; the scenes of the revolution, he said, “cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest” (p. 84). The men who had seen the Revolution, who were its “living history” are now gone.
They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. (p. 84)
The danger that the enthusiasms of the Revolution might fade away has advanced to a fact in 1863, the time of the fourth generation from that event; the national edifice has to be rebuilt “from the solid quarry of sober reason.” This is the age for a deliberate mining of the first accounts, for reading the founding documents.
So, then, “Four score and seven years ago” points to that quarry, that mine, of reason. Subtract 87 from 1863 and the result is 1776. Lincoln considers that this nation was both conceived in and born with the Declaration of Independence. On July 7, 1863, in response to a serenade on the occasion of the victory of Gettysburg, under the influence of the providential coincidence that the victories of Gettysburg and of Vicksburg had both been announced on the Fourth of July, he had said:
How long ago is it—eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” That was the birthday of the United States of America (p. 709).
And in earlier speeches he had often counted back the 80 or 82 years to 1776 (pp. 392, 393). In repeatedly fixing on the signing of the Declaration as a crucial date, Lincoln is making a deliberate political judgment concerning the hierarchy of founding events, different for instance from that of Toombs of Georgia, who had begun a speech in 1850 in this way: “Sixty years ago our fathers joined together to form a more perfect Union and to establish justice,” referring the founding of the republic to 1790 (the date when the last original state ratified the Constitution), and quoting from its Preamble. Lincoln’s version gives rather the birth of the nation.
Lincoln goes on: “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 “fathers,” then, are the men who devised and signed the Declaration, especially Jefferson.
These men “brought forth”: this is again Biblical diction; the phrase is used, for instance, in Luke 1:31, in the annunciation of the Messiah’s birth. They “brought forth on this continent”: there are undertones here of “begot upon the body of this land,” “fathered on this fallow continent as mother”; the child nation is safe in the lap of a whole continent, capable of protecting it from foreign interference and of providing those unlimited riches which are its material condition.
The new nation was “conceived in Liberty” (Liberty being the only noun capitalized besides “God”): not conceived in love as are blessed children, but conceived in the spirit of liberty as are blessed nations (cf. p. 315). Thus the begetting of this nation was a begetting of reason (so also “bringing forth” can mean “uttering reasons,” as in Isaiah 41:21). Upon this all but holy conception, the nation-child was devoted to a proposition as in a baptism. The proposition “that all men are created equal” was in quotation marks in the first draft (p. 735), since it comes from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
What is the significance of the birth date of 1776? Consonant with the second Federalist, Lincoln held that the Declaration of Independence was preceded by the Union, which had been formally established by the Articles of Association of 1774 and was succeeded by the establishment of the Constitution in 1787 (p. 582). This sequence was of the greatest significance, for it meant that the nation’s birth was a birth of principle, a birth whose conditions had been made safe by the slightly antecedent union of the people and whose nature was kept safe by allowing the practical instrument of its life to wait on its conception. Thus, using phrases borrowed from Proverbs 25:11, Lincoln wrote of the principle “Liberty to all” as expressed in the Declaration:
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it (p. 513).
Here “subsequently” must, in the case of the Union, mean not later in time, but in political priority.
Lincoln, then, held the Declaration to be far more than a declaration of independence, and indeed, it would in that case have been a peculiar document to cite in a war to fight secession. But it is much more, for its author, Jefferson, had, Lincoln said, “had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth” (p. 489). It is precisely in the omission of this truth that the various declarations of independence adopted by the Union’s adversaries are characterized (p. 607). And so Lincoln says:
I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence… It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time (Address in Independence Hall, 1861, p. 577, cf. pp. 362, 513).
Now, what is of prime importance in the speech is how these principles, which mark the true beginning of the nation, are held. Lincoln denominates them “conceptions” and “propositions.” In the Declaration the fathers had held these “truths to be self-evident.” Something has happened between the founding and the present which forces Lincoln to call the axioms of the Declaration mere propositions. What happened was that the Declaration had been called in public “a self-evident lie,” a phrase Lincoln often cited with repugnance (pp. 314, 331, 489), for it creates a dangerous situation:
One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society (p. 489).
We know that Lincoln had made a special effort to study texts concerned with, and to ponder the nature of, axiomatic self-evidence and logical consequence. In his short autobiography he particularly mentions that he had “studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress” (p. 549). He understood that self-evidence is a peculiarly delicate affair, since once impugned, once only denied in public, a self-evident truth turns into a debatable proposition. Yet as the axiom, precisely by reason of its self-evidence, is unprovable, so the proposition has no proof from higher principles, but can be verified only from its consequences or—dreadful prospect—from the fatal consequences of its contrary—the very situation of the Civil War.
What, more precisely, are these principles whose standing has changed? In the words of the Declaration they are “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Here equality of creation, equality before God, precedes and is the condition of the other rights, of which only some are named.
Now Lincoln seems in the Gettysburg Address to reverse this order in setting liberty as the first conception, as he had before termed “Liberty to all” the principle of the Declaration (p. 513). But elsewhere he says, “I believe that the declaration that all men are created equal is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest” (p. 479). What does Lincoln consider to be the real relation of these two principles?
De Tocqueville, in the chapter inquiring “Why Democratic Nations Show a More Ardent and Enduring Love of Equality than of Liberty” (Democracy in America, II, ii, 1), considers liberty and equality two diverse and independent things; equality, he says, pertains primarily to the social, liberty to the political sphere. Yet he admits that ultimately and radically considered, the two are what would be called in logical terms “commensurately universal,” that is, they imply each other: “It is possible to imagine an extreme point at which freedom and equality would meet and blend.”
Lincoln takes exactly this “extreme” view. He habitually sets out his understanding of the principle of equality with respect to the slavery question, which would appear to be primarily a question of liberty. On the other hand, he interprets equality of creation to mean precisely the possession of inalienable rights, chief among which is political liberty. The order of the two terms in the speech, then, signifies only that a community conceived in the spirit of liberty is congenitally devoted to the enunciated condition of its conception, the axiom of equality.
Lincoln is able to join the two conceptions in this way precisely because he does not make De Tocqueville’s division between the social nature of equality and the political nature of liberty. Equality, the ruling article of Lincoln’s political thought, is not fundamentally a social or even a political matter, for it is prior to human affairs. Lincoln asserts the serious converse of De Tocqueville’s statement that
Men who are similar and equal in the world readily conceive the idea of the one God, governing every man by the same laws and granting to every man future happiness on the same conditions. The idea of the unity of mankind constantly leads them back to the idea of the unity of the Creator (II, i, 5).
The effect of this converse is a deep doctrine regarding man’s original nature in the strict sense and his consequent standing in what Lincoln calls “the economy of the Universe,” namely his common submission to ”the justice of the Creator to his creatures… to the whole great family of man”; it is a deep-felt revival of Jefferson’s discarded version of the Declaration, which had asserted “that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” This creaturely equality implies no social homogeneity at all—the authors of the Declaration, Lincoln asserts, “did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity” (p. 360). But it does mean that men have each a will of their own and a sufficient amount of good common sense for the earthly realization of their equality, in civil liberty, which, in effect, is self-government; it is on this view of human nature as having its source in a creator that Lincoln’s trust in the wisdom of the people concerning the basic matters of ordinary life depends. The American social situation is, then, the consequence of America’s political principles; or to put it another way, in America society is originally based on political principles, and politics, which is ultimately a matter of faith, precedes society, not the reverse (cf. p. 279).
III. The Second Paragraph
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
In his middle paragraph Lincoln passes from “four score and seven years ago” and “our fathers” to “now” and “we,” from the generation of the Revolution to the generation of the Rebellion, of the “great civil war,” which, in its enormity, he had in the days of the victory of Gettysburg termed, in Miltonic language, a “gigantic Rebellion” (p. 709, also p. 702). Indeed there was to him something of the Fall in what he termed the wanton “destruction of our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes” (First Inaugural Address, p. 584).
Yet in that very speech Lincoln had maintained the right of revolution (p. 587), a right he had already asserted in the House as a “sacred right” during the war with Mexico. But, he maintained, the action of the Southern states was not revolution nor secession—it was “rebellion” (p. 602). The states could not leave the Union, for they had never existed, as states, “out of” the Union, but had entered it, insofar as they were entities at all, only as colonies, or, if as territories, from the state of nature (p. 479). There could be no “war between the states” but only a “civil war.” He justified this legalism by the argument that the Union alone is the guarantor of republican government through the Constitution. For this reason the Union—although, as De Tocqueville observed, an abstract being—is absolutely unbreakable. Lincoln’s effort is to turn the assent to this abstraction into a palpable feeling, even in this speech in which, out of tactful respect for the fact that a national but not a federal cemetery is being dedicated, the word “Union” never appears.
But, secession being rejected, what remains of the right of revolution? Lincoln’s thinking on this crucial matter is that of a radical conservative. When charged with revolutionary views himself, he protests his conservatism:
What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who framed the government under which we live” (p. 528);
but since the controversy referred to is the extension of slavery, which Lincoln opposed with all his might, his very opposition to change is conceived in the spirit of the Revolution. In other words, in this country, whose original government was constituted by revolution, the most progressive side tries most faithfully to return to the beginnings; that side has once and for all preempted the Revolution, the essence of which is the process of change by majority decision, so that all rebellion is counterrevolution. But this means that in a well-founded polity justice is almost identical with organic law, and a sense of justice with the intention to make it “long endure.” Hence the right of revolution is strictly circumscribed.
If, by mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution—certainly would, if such a right were a vital one (p. 584).
The issue must be one of constitutional rights denied, and any sectional or factional uprising, upon a mere feeling of dissent, constitutes an uprising against the people. So Lincoln says of the secessionists:
These politicians are subtle and profound on the rights of minorities. They are not partial to that power which made the Constitution, and speaks from the Preamble, calling itself “We the People” (p. 606).
This war, Lincoln goes on to say, is a test. The crisis has the nature of a test, because this government is an experiment, as Lincoln said in his message to Congress, which he had called into special session to meet on that fateful day of July 4, at the beginning of the war in 1861:
Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it (p. 608).
As the final phase of an experiment the war represents one test for all cases, a model case of a nation well established, in which two necessary founding conditions were optimal, namely the wisdom of the fathers and the receptivity of the continent; if this nation fails, then it is demonstrated that “any nation” must fail. This is how the American enterprise had been understood from the founding; “it seems to have been reserved,” says the first Federalist,
to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice.
IV. The Third Paragraph
In the last two sentences, half the speech in length, Lincoln develops the single explicit theme of the speech—the second dedication of the nation, in this consecrated place, here among the dead (Lincoln removed a fourth “here” from the final version), in that spell-like diction which gives successive colons identical or near-identical endings. To describe the nature of this new dedication he mingles the language of church and legislative assembly. The dedication, the consecration, the hallowing, the devotion Lincoln urges is of a political sort. He had urged it already in 1838, in his speech on “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions”:
Let reverence for the laws… become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars (p. 81).
Lincoln is deliberately consecrating politics.
The last two clauses give the effect of the new dedication: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” The words “under God” were not in the first draft;· they were reported in the newspaper versions of the speech as delivered and later incorporated by Lincoln (cf. p. 752). Why, did he add them?
Under the heading “Of Civil Religion,” the last heading in The Social Contract, Rousseau describes the civil religion of republics which it is the business of the sovereign to set out, not as religious dogmas but as “sentiments of socialibility.” They ought to be
simple, few in number, precisely fixed, and without explanation or comment. The existence of a powerful, wise, and benevolent Divinity, who foresees and provides the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws (IV; viii).
This is precisely the nature of Lincoln’s faith as continually set out in his public pronouncements. The nation is under a beneficent Father who “dwelleth in the Heavens” (p. 728). It has a double parentage—the founding fathers and the Father above.
This nation will have “a new birth of freedom.” Those words were not, at the time, felt to be at all innocuous. Nor are they, if “of freedom” is read not as an objective genitive, so that the nation is said to give birth to a new freedom, but as a parallel to “conceived in Liberty,” so that the nation itself is said to be reborn. The Chicago Times, in reporting the speech, said that in this phrase “Mr. Lincoln did most foully traduce the motives of the men who were slain at Gettysburg,” for they fought only to preserve the old government. Now, as has been shown, Lincoln in fact agreed with this conservative view of the struggle, but in a not so innocuous way. He had said:
Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and keep it, forever worthy of saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations (p. 315).
The last phrases are a paraphrase of the Magnificat, the words of the mother-to-be of the Messiah: “For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). It is Lincoln’s awesome idea that the generation of the Civil War, under his leadership, is at once the savior and the parent of the savior nation, that America is to politics “almost” as Israel was to the spirit. That means that for the Union side the war is a kind of second coming, a second bringing-forth, after four score and seven years. Lincoln has converted Jefferson’s extravagant opinion that “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing” (Letter to Madison, January 30, 1787) into a serious view concerning the periodic rebirth of the Revolution—to occur, evidently, in fullest force in the fourth generation, once in a century.
In this idea Lincoln recognizes that a country founded in a revolution is bound to have a generational problem, brought about by the very success of the system, for he says:
We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them—they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors (p. 77).
The generational dilemma raised by successful survival of the revolutionary institutions is that the successor generations, bred in that most desirable ignorance, the ignorance of anarchy and despotism, and mistaking the drained habits of their parents for the tradition, will in the low of political passion arouse themselves by giving current problems a cataclysmic cast, and may, developing an appetite for unknown terror, be willing to cure dissatisfaction by catastrophe. A return to the founding Revolution alone can forestall such an event, or if, as in the case of the Civil War, the event becomes a fact, can turn it into an act of salvation. Lincoln continually makes the effort to convert the war in this way, even comparing its financial funding to that of the Revolution (p. 602).
But the phrase “a new birth of freedom” also has a more precise meaning. Lincoln contended that the Declaration of Independence included Negroes and that the authors of the Constitution intended that slavery would in time be abolished. Accordingly he was the implacable foe of the extension of slavery—this single issue dominates his speeches before the war. It was an issue important to him partly because peculiarly connected with it was the question of the axiomatic character of the founding principles, namely the question of their universality. Such propositions, pronounced concerning “all men,” must either altogether fail or altogether prevail, in respect both to institutions: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free” (1858, p. 372), and to individuals:
This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it (p. 489).
Lincoln repeatedly pointed out that the fathers had not allowed the word “slavery” to disfigure the text of the Constitution. No more does it occur in the Gettysburg Address, and yet it is there, in the background, for on the first of that very year he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and that fact gave a specific meaning to the “new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln begins with the Revolution and its statement of principle, the Declaration; he ends with a phrase defining popular government and alluding to its instituting document, the Constitution. This represents the natural difference in the commitments of the first and the fourth generations:
As the patriots of seventy-six did to support the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor (p. 81; cf. Declaration, end).
This government “shall not perish from the earth”—that is the ”work,” the “task,” the “cause.” Lincoln has ended, as he began, with language heavy with the Bible:
The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net (Micah 7:2).
If this rebellion prevails, this allusion warns, so that this government does perish, men will return to that universal state of war, the war of each against all, which precedes the institution of government; the Rebellion will undo the Founding.
In Lincoln’s words:
Plainly, 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 rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or despotism (1861, p. 585).
And finally, there is the allusion to Jeremiah 10:11: “The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth.” False gods shall perish, but the government of the people shall not perish.
V. The Speaker
After having, at length, considered the speech, it is legitimate to consider the speaker.
Lincoln is, at his height, a public man:
If ever I feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not wholly unworthy of its Almighty Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country (1839, p. 112).
But an American speaker who, like Lincoln, means to put his whole soul at the service of the body politic, has a peculiar problem, rooted in the quality of American life, which De Tocqueville describes in the chapter called “Of Some Sources of Poetry Among Democratic Nations”: “Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with pal try interests—in one word so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States” (II, i, 17). This is because democracy has given up in distaste the source of aristocratic poetry, the past, while its very principle, that of equality, deprives it, by making all contemporaries equally mediocre, of sources in the present. There remain to democratic poets, De Tocqueville says, only three sources of themes: the nation, the future, and God—and these precisely anticipate the themes of Lincoln’s public poetry. But, as he observes in the chapter on “Why American Writers and Orators Often Use an Inflated Style,” it is difficult to present these themes at the middle distance:
In democratic communities, each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object: namely, himself. If he ever raises his looks higher, he perceives only the immense form of society at large or the still more imposing aspect of mankind. His ideas are all either minute and clear or extremely general and vague; what lies between is a void (II, i, 18).
The very nature of the principles of equality and liberty is responsible for this American problem of the middle void. For they are axioms of openness, that is, propositions of reason which are yet not intended as prescriptive bases for the whole of life, principles of potentiality which, not being themselves goods, only offer the possibility of goods, the foundations of a prosperous privacy, which become the less interesting the more efficacious they are.
The Gettysburg Address begins and ends not only with phrases borrowed from American oratory but with the diction of the Bible. In his effort to fill this American void, Lincoln finds a source book which is at once traditional but not antique, which offers an appropriate alternative to classicizing rhetoric. The Bible, on the one hand, lends him a language at once high and popular, a language of salvation with which to magnify the American enterprise; with its diction he speaks as “Father Abraham,” as the first patriarch of a new generation of founding fathers. On the other hand, it supports him in a view of the nature of political affairs as finally beyond merely human management, a nature whose public acknowledgement damps the hysterical activity filling the American void, and reduces it to that melancholic deliberateness on which the public business thrives.
So the same speaker who is so eminently democratic in theme is the very reverse in form. Again De Tocqueville provides the criteria in his chapter on “Literary Characteristics of Democratic Times”:
Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science and art; its form, on the contrary, will ordinarily be slighted, sometimes despised. Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at rapidity of execution more than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books (II, i,13).
Now, this otherwise so accurate description is conspicuously inapplicable to Lincoln’s writing. The Gettysburg Address is small, to be sure, but it was not rapidly executed: Lincoln had brought a worked-over draft from Washington; he re-worked this in Gettysburg on the eve of delivery, and he amended each of the three known copies he made over the next three months. Although, as he said, not a master of language nor in possession of a fine education, he was careful; he wrote to a man who had submitted to him an edited version of one of his speeches:
So far as it is intended merely to improve in grammar, and elegance of composition, I am quite agreed; but I do not wish the sense changed, or modified, to a hair’s breadth. And you, not having studied particular points so closely as I have, can not be quite sure that you do not change the sense when you do not intend it (p. 545).
His style is the very opposite of that of the typical democratic writer described by De Tocqueville in his chapter on “How American Democracy has Modified the English Language” (II, i, 16), who out of lack of care, love of change and desire for bigness, uses old words in indeterminate senses, introduces vast numbers of new words usually borrowed from technical vocabularies, and loads his speech with abstract and general expressions. The lapidary precision of form, deliberately acquired in a solitary study of grammar, which carries the patriarchal grandeur of Lincoln’s rhetoric is a sign of a novel kind of aristocracy—republican aristocracy. Lincoln tacitly rejected Everett’s cold classicism as inappropriate to a democratic speaker whose object must not be to demonstrate or exert his own superiority. His own rhetoric shows precisely those special characteristics of certain ancient aristocratic writers, of whom De Tocqueville writes in the chapter entitled “The Study of Greek and Latin Literature is Peculiarly Useful in Democratic Communities”:
Nothing in their works seems done hastily or at random; every line is written for the eye of the connoisseur and is shaped after some conception of ideal beauty. No literature places those fine qualities in which the writers of democracies are naturally deficient in bolder relief than that of the ancients; no literature, therefore, ought to be more studied in democratic times (II, i, 15).
Lincoln himself is, then, in De Tocqueville’s sense an aristocratic writer, even to the point of finding his sources in the past. The man who had had from youth the “peculiar ambition” of being “truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem” (p. 57), could have no quarrel with the fundamental idea of aristocracy. For he was himself an exemplification of Jefferson’s contention, set out in his correspondence with Adams (October 28, 1813), that aristocracy and democracy, the rule by the best and the rule by the people, have been made compatible in the United States, that the citizens in free election can and will—as he said, “in general,” and as we must say, on occasion—choose from among themselves the “natural aristoi,” the best by nature. The Gettysburg Address is the utterance of such an aristos, a man at the same time excellent in the antique sense and good in the common understanding.
This essay was originally published here in March 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It originally appeared in The College, a publication of St. John’s College (Volume 21, No. 1, 1969) after having been given as a lecture on both St. John’s College campuses in the fall of 1968. It is a much shortened version of a study published in a supplement to The Palaestra, a student magazine. Page references are to Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg surrounded by a crowd. It is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.