What Should We Make of the Gettysburg Address?

Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln came to south central Pennsylvania, about thirty miles from where I am sitting as I write this post, to dedicate a national cemetery in Gettysburg.  There were about 15,000 people in attendance to hear Lincoln speak.  As many of you know, he was forced to follow Edward Everett, one of his generation’s great orators. Everett delivered a two hour speech.  Lincoln followed with 272 words.  Four score and seven years ago…

I have taken students to the site of this address several times over the years.  This summer I got to wander the cemetery for a few minutes with my twelve-year old daughter.  She did not like the fact that I was pulling her away from her friends during a break in a basketball tournament she was playing at Gettysburg College, but sometimes when your Dad is a history professor you need to learn how to deal with these kinds of spontaneous field trips.  I hope she will remember it.

As I walked through the cemetery this past summer, trying to explain to my daughter the significance of all that happened at Gettysburg, I tried to reflect on the words of the Gettysburg Address.  Those famous words began to ring in my ears: “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.”  Amen.

And then I thought about how Lincoln understood what happened on the battlefield just a few months before he delivered this speech.  The people who fought at Gettysburg had died so the nation might live. He used religious terms such as “consecration” and “devotion.”  The soldiers at Gettysburg did not die in vain.  Instead, they spilled their blood and sacrificed their lives for a new nation, a free nation.

As Garry Wills argued over twenty years ago, Lincoln’s words “remade America” by redefining the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  After November 19, 1863, one would be hard pressed to think about the Declaration as merely a foreign policy document designed to announce America’s independence to the world.  (This is how the founders perceived it).  Lincoln helped to make the Declaration into what the late Pauline Maier has called “American Scripture,” a sacred text that will forever more be seen as a definitive statement of American nationalism despite the fact that this was by no means the document’s original intent.  With U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman doing the dirty work in the months following the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s “nation, under God” was achieved. The Union would survive amid the difficult trial of war.

Yesterday, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I helped Megan Piette bring together Messiah College history students and faculty to read the Address in front of a camera. (Stay tuned:  We hope to have this mash-up video online soon).  As I quietly sat in the back of the room listening to my colleagues and students recite the Address, I could not help think about how such a speech might be received at a place like Messiah College, a school partly rooted in the Anabaptist tradition.  Because of these roots Messiah does not fly an American flag on campus (although you will find one in the gym and on the athletic fields–NCAA regulations), privileges pacifism and non-violence, and is very wary of American patriotism and nationalism. As I listened to everyone repeat Lincoln’s words before the camera I wondered if any of them were thinking about how ironic it was to be reciting this speech at this school.   I thought about the several students and colleagues who did not respond to my invitation to participate in this project.  Perhaps they were just too busy and did not have the time.  But I wonder if some of them did not want to participate on more theological grounds.  I could definitely understand why someone from a Mennonite or Brethren tradition might feel uncomfortable affirming publicly a statement from a United States president who waged war to save the Union and then gave a speech “consecrating” such an act.

There is, of course, another way of looking at the Gettysburg Address. When Lincoln talked about “a new birth of freedom” he was probably referencing the renewed sense of equality that would eventually come to African Americans with a Union victory. (Remember, the Gettysburg Address was delivered over eleven months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued).  Perhaps he was envisioning the legislation that would eventually become 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  By November 1863, Lincoln and his abolitionist friends had made this a war about both preserving the Union and ending slavery.  Should the fact that the Gettysburg Address remade the Declaration of Independence (and the Constitution for that matter) by offering a more inclusive nationalist vision make us, or my Anabaptist friends, feel any better about all the war, bloodshed, and patriotism?  I don’t know, but it certainly makes me feel slightly better about it, even if I am not entirely sure the Civil War was a just war.

3 conclusions:

1). I love my country and think, along with Ken Burns, that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address needs to be commemorated, remembered, and perhaps even memorized.

2). I can’t help but wonder whether the death of over 50,000 people on the field at Gettysburg was really worth preserving the Union.

3).  If Lincoln’s understanding of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg (as articulated in this address) was about bringing the ideals of the Declaration of the Independence to former slaves then I am on board.

In the end, I think it is important to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address today because it raises a lot of questions–questions worth discussing over and over again–about our relationship to American nationalism and how that nationalism was forged in the crucible of war.