Read the text of the Gettsyburg Address and more on the Library of Congress website
“...this issue (of secession) embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy—a government of the people, by the same people ... (and) the question whether discontented individuals ... (can) break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln, in his message to Congress in special session, July 4, 1861
The Gettysburg Address was a long time “a-birthing,” almost nine decades, or, as Lincoln said in one of the best-known phrases in American politics: “Four score and seven years ago”— 87 years being the time between the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and when Lincoln delivered his address at Gettysburg.
The Declaration, with its self-evident truths, was the mainspring of Lincoln’s political philosophy. From 1854 onward, he skinned opponents who denied the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal.”
In Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration was signed, Lincoln, on the way to the first inaugural, told the audience: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. ... Something in that Declaration (gave) liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all time.”
As the Declaration was the mainspring of Lincoln’s politics, so too, was it the mainspring of the Gettysburg Address.
The address distilled six years of Lincoln’s most intense experience—1854 to the election of 1860— in facing issues he would deal with as president, the primary one, apart from the war, being slavery.
Lincoln believed the Civil War put liberty, equality and self-government itself at risk, here and around the world. Democracy was rare then, a constitutional republic rarer still. The U.S. stood as an ideal for others to follow. But if it broke apart, the ideal would be gone.
As he memorialized the 7,000 who died at Gettysburg, Lincoln opened with two ideas at the heart of the Declaration: “all men are created equal” and hope that self-government would not perish.
People in other times and places did find hope in the address, as this inspiring example shows: In 1956, as tens of thousands of Soviet troops and thousands of their tanks were smashing Hungary’s budding revolution, the final broadcast of free Hungarian radio was the Gettysburg Address, broadcast over and over.
Ninety-seven years after the speech, these Hungarians were a part of Lincoln’s “whole family of man.”
So too, in Lincoln’s view, were slaves of his time in this family of man. The idea was central to the Gettysburg Address.
Were black men included in the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal?” Stephen Douglas — who defeated Lincoln in the 1858 race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois and lost to Lincoln in the 1860, presidential race — said they were not included. Lincoln said they were. The two debated the issue hotly from 1854 to 1860, as did much of the nation.
These differing views were a force for war, and it took the war to push a slow movement toward a black man being considered “a man” in the law and everyday life.
The Gettysburg Address is our greatest civic poem, and can stand alone as a great reading. But it does not stand alone in the course of human events. Much American history is behind it: The Declaration; the wrangling over slavery in writing the Constitution; a long string of legislation seeking to limit slavery but ultimately failing; the Dred Scott case; and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. These and more led Lincoln to Gettysburg.
Lincoln hated slavery. He made mistakes and false starts in trying to unwind the cruel and evil institution while also holding the nation together.
If Lincoln hated slavery, why did he focus so much on uniting the nation when for abolitionists and others freeing the slaves was a much more pressing issue?
A primary reason is that Lincoln could not simply do whatever he wanted to and when he wanted to do it. No president had that power. It was easy for abolitionists, and critics of our own day, to say Lincoln should have freed all slaves sooner. It was not easy for the president responsible for overseeing the war, holding together a shaky and squabbling coalition to win the war, seeking a workable way to free slaves and laying the groundwork for healing between North and South after the war was over — if the Union prevailed.
Lincoln believed that self-government based on the consensus of the governed could itself be an instrument for freedom, for creating a new birth of freedom.
What of this new birth of freedom? Who was it for? It was for everyone, including people around the world.
But this “new freedom” was different for various people. In the Union, most whites were already free, or in some stage of freedom. They could pick up and move somewhere else, change jobs. They could own a business or farm their own land, learn a craft or trade to make their own way in the world. They did not have to stand by as their families were forcibly separated and sold.
What of slaves? Where did they stand in Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom?
Lincoln had made this clear in several places.
In his closing his annual message to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862, he said: “We say we are for the Union. .... We know how to save the Union. ... We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
As a civic poem, the Gettysburg Address stands with the Prologue of the Declaration and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” litany in the 1963 speech he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is appropriate on this day to note that in the opening of his speech, Dr. King referred to Lincoln indirectly: “Five score years ago, a great man ... signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
In the Gettysburg Address freedom comes full circle, opening with freedom, ending with freedom. From the first sentence “... a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” From the closing: “... 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.”
This was Lincoln ‘s hope and remains our hope for people everywhere, for what Lincoln called “the whole family of man.”
Tack Cornelius is a writer living in Gainesville and an occasional columnist.