Echoes of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Address croppedI was on Radio 3’s Night Waves last night presenting a short package about the legacy of the Gettysburg Address. You can listen to it here. On Radio 4, James Naughtie presented a documentary on how and why Lincoln came to give the speech (I appear in that programme as well).

Here is the text of what I said in my Night Waves piece:

Echoes of Gettysburg



One of the final changes Abraham Lincoln made to his copy of the Gettysburg Address before he delivered it was to delete the word ‘this’: a minor edit with major consequences. His aim was to explain the cause for which the soldiers buried in the new military cemetery near the site of the battle of Gettysburg had died. His tiny edit altered his answer. Instead of this government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,’ what he ended up saying was simply government of the people, by the people and for the people.


It was a shrewd move. What otherwise might have been an America-centric speech became something that sounds universal.


The 272 remaining words of the speech contained one big idea: if the United States government failed in its war to keep the Union together, democracy would die. Not just, in Lincoln’s words, ‘on this continent’, but everywhere: it would perish from the earth.


It has been said of Churchill’s 1940 radio addresses that they ‘pre-created historical memory’ by memorializing the Battle of Britain as ‘our finest hour’ before it had even begun. In the same way, and with equal long-term success, Lincoln was not just issuing a call to arms when he spoke at Gettysburg, he was telling his listeners what their struggle would mean to future generations.  We are testing, he said, whether ‘any nation’ conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure. The stakes couldn’t be higher: if the southern attempt to break away was suppressed and the United States survived in tact then the winners would be all believers in government of the people around the world.


‘The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,’ Lincoln claimed. But even if he was being a little disingenuous there, he surely can’t have predicted that this short address, delivered exactly 150 years ago, would have as long-lasting and far-reaching an impact as it has had.


That ‘government of, by and for’ phrase – the encapsulation of the idea of democracy, of popular government – has been echoed by American politicians, and recorded by seemingly every famous American since the invention of recording devices, from Neil Armstrong to Johnny Cash. But its universality ensured that it travelled to other continents, too.


It was stitched onto Durham miners’ banners; it was a favourite trope of Fidel Castro and Eamon de Valera – and also of Ulster Unionists. It was translated into French to become Article 2 of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.


And as invasion loomed in 1941, Humphrey Jennings had Lawrence Olivier speak Lincoln’s lines for his film, Words for Battle. Churchill offered defiance, but Jennings turned to Lincoln to express the democratic idea that it was the ordinary people of England—not rulers or landscape or beautiful buildings—who made England worth fighting for.


The speech has echoed because it has Biblical cadences, because it builds to a climax, and becasuse it is packed full of tricolons (those staples of rhetoricians: sentences with three clearly defined parts).


The whole speech – almost exactly the same length as the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy — is, like most great speeches, an extended metaphor, and this metaphor is the most elemental of all — birth, death and resurrection: fathers brought forth; these honored dead; a new birth of freedom.


Rhetoric has acquired a bad name – usually prefixed with ‘empty’ or ‘mere’. And when Lincoln is hailed as a secular prophet (as he has been, many times) or the spiritual founder of modern America (as he still is), an instinctive riposte is to point out that any speech that can be used for so many different purposes can’t contain very much that matters.


Who were the people Lincoln spoke of? Not women, and probably not non-white people.


How could any government be so simplistically by or ‘for’ such an amorphous, quarreling entity as the people anyway?


And most of all, why would the idea of democracy have perished if the United States lost the war?


Lincoln was the most effective advocate of the idea of American exceptionalism there has ever been: he genuinely believed that the United States was, as he put it, the last, best hope of earth. The fact that millions of non-Americans at the time shared his view does not obscure the monumental presumption of this claim.


In some ways the defeat of the Confederacy did advance the cause of democracy: within four years of being legally regarded as property, black men formally became citizens and – even more amazingly, if fleetingly – they became voters. But Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech left a darker legacy too, since at root this was a defence of the idea of using monumental state violence to maintain the political authority of the government. No one knows exactly how many people died in that war – it could have been more than 800,000. Noble ends and violent means: it is a more ambiguous legacy than his present-day celebrators acknowledge.


Yet none of these problems have dimmed the afterlife of the Gettysburg Address. In a larger sense, to use a Lincolnian phrase, the speech gains its poetic and narrative traction as a dramatization of a choice between light and dark: to be, or not to be, democratic and free.


No matter that choices in the world are rarely so stark. The Gettysburg Address offers us the reassurance of that simple but monumental choice.


But if this suggests that maybe more attention has been devoted to the Gettysburg Address then it truly merits, there is at least one instance in which a lack of attention to Lincoln’s legacy had fateful consequences. President John F. Kennedy was invited to go to Gettysburg in November 1963 to speak at the centenary commemorations being organized by the National Park Service.


He sent his apologies – he had decided to go to Dallas instead.


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