You may recall that last month we blogged about a First Things article by Robert George in which he relayed his experience at a meeting of the American Constitutional Society for Law and Policy. At that meeting George was given a free copy of the Gettysburg Address that had the words “under God” omitted.
At Brainstorm, Mark Bauerlein offers his own take on George’s experience:
George notes that there are five drafts of the Address, and two of them do not include “under God.” But, he argues, those two are the least authoritative.
“The two drafts not containing the words are known as the Nicolay draft and the Hay draft. They are held in the Library of Congress. The other three, all containing the words, are known as the Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies. The Everett copy is held in the Illinois State Historical Society Library in Springfield. The Bancroft is in the Kroch Library at Cornell University. The Bliss is on display at the White House.
“The Bliss copy is generally regarded as the authoritative one, mainly because it is the last—and the only one to which Lincoln actually attached his signature. The Nicolay draft is thought to be the earliest. It gets its name from the custodian of Lincoln’s papers. The Hay draft was found among John Hay’s papers about 40 years after Lincoln’s death. It seems to have the greatest number of deviations from the other drafts and from what Lincoln is known to have said at Gettysburg. The Everett copy was sent to Edward Everett by Lincoln at Everett’s request in 1864. (Everett was the famed orator who was actually the main speaker at the ceremony at Gettysburg the day Lincoln spoke.) The Bancroft copy got its name because Lincoln produced it for George Bancroft, a historian and secretary of the Navy. The Bliss copy is named for the publisher Alexander Bliss—Bancroft’s stepson.
“Of course, none of these copies is actually the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address is the set of words actually spoken by Lincoln at Gettysburg. And, as it happens, we know what those words are. (The Bliss copy nearly perfectly reproduces them.) Three entirely independent reporters, including a reporter for the Associated Press, telegraphed their transcriptions of Lincoln’s remarks to their editors immediately after the president spoke. All three transcriptions include the words “under God,” and no contemporaneous report omits them. There isn’t really room for equivocation or evasion: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—one of the founding texts of the American republic—expressly characterizes the United States as a nation under God.”
Why prefer the dubious versions, then? Obviously, for ideological reasons. To have references to God in a founding text runs against the Society’s contention that “government must be neutral not only among competing traditions of religious faith, but between religion and atheism,” George explains. So, the Society is willing to toss out scholarly principle and common sense in order to maintain an ideological position. The Society has amended the pamphlet on its Web site by adding the words “The Hay Draft,” an act that only compounds the error.
George concludes, “The omission of the words ‘under God’ in a document characterized as a founding text by a liberal legal advocacy organization in the context of our contemporary debates over the role of religion in American public life and the meaning of the Constitution’s provisions pertaining to religion is just too convenient.”