The Genius of the Gettysburg Address, (Part One of Two)

One of the pivotal moments of American History is the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. It was November 19, 1863.

The Civil War still raged on, but the end was inevitable. Since the Battle of Gettysburg the previous July 1-3, 1863 the South was is a state of retreat and decline.

The speech, therefore is more about the broader war, and not merely about the battle.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a short speech, only three paragraphs long. But the Gettysburg Address is beautiful in language and powerful in meaning.

The Gettysburg Address is also a great marker, a symbolic and historic bookend, in the end of an era in American History.

The end of the Civil War is essentially connected to the founding of the nation, and I see the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence as bookends on history.

John Locke, Enlightenment philosopher

It goes without saying that The Declaration of Independence is a blockbuster in history. The Declaration inspired other nations to move toward independence and been copied by others for revolutions around the world.

In The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote about how human beings are born with rights that cannot be taken away and that are grafted into humans at birth. At the time this was a radical assertion, as the concept of human rights had never been established in a new government.

The Enlightenment thinker John Locke initially wrote about this idea.  Locke wrote that governments derive their power from a social contract with the people. That the people had the right to agree to a government to be imposed upon them for their collective benefit and security.

Jefferson’s description of these rights was not collective, but rather focused on the individual. He wrote that all men are created equal, endowed with rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This description was about the personal; a description of the individual. The government he was describing would be defined later in the Articles of Confederation, which place supreme importance upon protecting the individual from the government, insuring personal liberty above collective welfare.

articlesSo we start with a perspective focused on the individual. The national debate in American history centers around the balance between the individual and the collective.

Who is in control becomes a source of intense speculation.

The debate in history centers around divisive issues, especially slavery. The question of the right of an individual to own slaves as part of their individual pursuit of happiness becomes more and more intense.

States argued that the federal government could not interfere with their way of live, the Southern way of life.

John C. Calhoun

Politicians like John Calhoun, who was also the former vice-president of the United States, argued that slavery was essential to the South and that if the federal government tried to end slavery the South would leave the Union. This refers directly to the concept Jefferson described in the Declaration, when he wrote that governments derive their just powers for the consent of the governed.

If the federal government was going to end slavery, the argument followed, then the South would withdraw its consent to be governed by the federal government.

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis

Ultimately this is exactly what the Confederacy decided and exclaimed in its founding documents.

From the beginning the nation continued to debate the balance of a two tiered system known as Federalism. The debate touched on taxation, a question raised by the Tariff of Abomination and settled by the Force Acts.

Again the debate came up over commerce between states, to be decided by the Supreme Court Case of Gibbons v Ogden. Most common, of course was the debate over slavery and the balance between slave states and free states in the Federal system.

There were a series of compromises leading up to the Civil War. To establish a national unity in 1789, the Founders inserted a compromise over representation in the Constitution itself, which allowed “all other persons”, meaning slaves, to be counted for representation as three-fifths of a white person towards representation in the House of Representative.

The slavery compromise made the Constitution a racist document.

Fugitive Slave Act
Fugitive slave handbill

The Missouri Compromise allowed the balance of power between slave and free states to continue, with Missouri created as a slave’s state and Maine created as free. California statehood created a crisis for the states, because as a free state extending to the border of Mexico, California cut the Southern economy off from access to the Pacific Ocean.

The compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act.

The election of an outspoken abolitionist president in 1860 was the crisis without compromise. The South began to secede even before Lincoln was sworn into office.  The debate of who was in charge was over for the slave states, and the Confederacy was formed to preserve white supremacy.

The basis of the succession was the idea first expressed in the Declaration of Independence that a free people could withdraw their support when the government became abusive to the pursuit of freedom. In this case, if it important to understand that the freedom in question was the freedom of whites to enslave others for their benefit and gain.

The Civil War was a battle to answer the question the South had already answered for itself.

Lincoln repeatedly said that the war was about saving the Union. He hesitated to make the war about slavery at first, but ultimately even he could not avoid the obvious truth.

The Gettysburg Address was Lincoln’s first and best attempt to explain the error of the rebels. It was his attempt to explain how we as a nation might go forward.

The language of the speech, however, reveals a lot about Lincoln the man. It shows just how special his genius really was.

Please look for the second installment of this post, The Genius of the Gettysburg Address, (Part Two of Two) on Historydojo. If you like Historydojo, please become a follower to receive alerts when new post are available. Please support Historydojo on Patreon, and receive early access to posts and month podcasts.


Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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