The Genius of Lincoln at Gettysburg

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 bookend, in the end of an era in American History.

The Declaration of Independence is a blockbuster in history. It has inspired other nations and been copied by others for revolutions around the world. In it, 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.

This is the second installment of the Genius of Lincoln series from HistoryDojo. Please check out the first installment here.

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.

Here we start with a perspective focused on the individual. The debate then starts about the balance between the individual and the collective. Who is in control becomes a source of intense speculation.

The national debate in American history centers around divisive issues, and in the nineteenth century it centers especially on the issue of 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.

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.

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.

A series of compromises  lead up to the Civil War. We started with the 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. This compromise ultimate made the Constitution a racist document.

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 solution; the compromise in this case, 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.

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The Civil War was a battle to answer this question that 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.

After the Battle of Gettysburg he had to express the answer. His answer to this debate, and his answer to the essence of the Civil War is contained in his Gettysburg Address.

As a mirror opposite of the Declaration, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address acknowledges its connection to Jefferson’s Declaration in the first sentence. Four score and seven years ago, it begins, is a fancy way of giving Lincoln’s own periodization.

This definition of the time period of his address is important because it tells us the context of his answer. Four score and seven year ago is eighty-seven years prior, or 1776.

In the first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln starts in the past, describing what has come before.

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.

It is one single sentence. Simple in its subject and direct in its message. It’s important to understand the structure, I explain, because it shows us Lincoln’s brilliance as a man and as a writer.

In the second paragraph Lincoln brings us into the present, explaining what he is doing.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

In this second paragraph we are introduced to the action of the moment. It is a speech to dedicate a cemetery of war dead. It is about twice as long as his first paragraph. It explains the essence of the conflict for Lincoln. The Civil War is about the enduring status of the nation.

Even here he does not mention slavery, even though he had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation and started the process of drafting the Thirteenth Amendment.

In the third and final paragraph Lincoln takes us into the future. The progression from past to present to future is just one of the many beautiful elements of this speech. The natural growth in length of each successive paragraph is another notable element. In the final paragraph Lincoln not only expands the philosophical importance of his message but does it in a way masterful in its rhetoric and structure.

It reads,

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.

The first sentence has three actions contained in it. Three is a powerful element of rhetoric. The ancient concept of “omne trium perfectum establishes that everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.

Remember too, that this is a three paragraph speech, which uses the past, the present and now the future as future subjects.

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Here Lincoln explains how the future will remember the larger meaning of the Civil War, and not the many individual expressions about the war. Note how he is moving us from the personal to the collective. This is key to his answer to the original debate, started in 1776 and continued to that moment.

And then Lincoln goes into the future. He tells us about the future in three final sentences, reinforcing the rhetorical perfection of three.  

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

I explain the first prediction of the future is about our collective responsibility.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion

In this second prediction he defines the first, saying that our future is inspired by those who came before us, tying the past to the present and into the future.

— that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

And the final third prediction itself has another rhetorical third within it, the subject of which is highlighted by the famous use of “the people” but which is the unrepeated central idea of “government.”  

This is poetic genius in plain sight. In three paragraphs, each longer than the one before and ending with a final sentences that is three phrases unto itself Lincoln ties the past to the present to the future and the individual to the whole of a nation.

That is not easy to do.

But don’t get blinded by the poetry.

Pay attention to the words. Words are powerful and important.

The words describe how the collective whole, and not the individual, is the new dedication of this nation, according to Lincoln. Government of the people, government by the people and government for the people shall not perish from the earth.

This is not “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is government, government, government for the people, now and forever.

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Lincoln, I explain, has just thrown out the Declaration and its emphasis on the individual with a new form of government where the collective interest of the people is enshrined in government.

He even calls it, “a new birth of freedom.” If something has a new birth, or a rebirth, it can be said to have experienced a revolution. The old is replaced with the new.

In short, and to summarize, Lincoln has just overthrown the government of the United States and replaced it with a new dedication.

The Gettysburg Address is a revolution in three paragraphs.

And then, I remind them, consider the context of the speech. Lincoln is not standing on the steps of the Capitol, as he did in his first inaugural address, imploring us to remember the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln is not the peacemaker anymore.

In the three years prior to the Gettysburg Address he has called out the Army to kill hundreds of thousands of Confederates. After the Gettysburg Address, he orders Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman to burn down the South in a March To The Sea.

This is not Abraham Lincoln the peacemaker. This is Lincoln the warrior president.

Remember, Lincoln is standing in the middle of a cemetery when he gives the Gettysburg Address.

He is surrounded by the dead.

The dead all around him inspire us to go forward to insure this new government he is establishing.

The dead all around him also stand as a stark warning to anyone who might continue to debate the questions of states rights.

The dead all around him are evidence of what happens to those who oppose this new collective devotion to federal supremacy. They warn us against any future secession.

This is the end of the era. This is clearly a new beginning; a new birth of freedom.

The message Lincoln gave to us on that day is a bookend of history, completing what was started by Jefferson and the Founders and debated and fought over until that moment.

To us this is a profound lesson in the power of words and the meaning of history. I strive to help my students see that words do matter. Words define who we are as nation. Words can even overthrow nations.

Sometimes a nation can experience a revolution in three paragraphs.

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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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