Three score days ago, The Harrisburg Patriot & Union retracted its unflattering 1863 review of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. But this retraction deserves more attention, I think, than that the editors reconsidered. The Patriot & Union was a Republican journal; it carried an accurate account of the speech, and so it’s worthwhile to ask why its editors labeled this great speech, “silly remarks”, deserving “a veil of oblivion”; “without sense.” Clearly the editors saw a serious lack that we do not see today. It’s worth asking then, what made them think it was silly and lacking in sense?
Lincoln spoke a few words in honor of the dead, but Edward Everett spoke on this topic for two hours before Lincoln rose. This lack does not appear to be what bothered the editors: “To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.” The editors came to Gettysburg (I think) to hear Lincoln to hear things that only LIncoln could provide — his real thoughts on slavery and an update on his efforts at peace. As best I can tell, it was in these areas that they saw “a veil of oblivion.” Even so, for them to call this address, “silly remarks” there must be more going on. Here are my thoughts.
Lincoln had freed southern slaves a few months earlier by the emancipation proclamation, but no one knew their status; there had been a riot over this a few days previous. Did Lincoln claim equality for these ex-slaves, and if not, what were his thoughts on the extent of their in-equality. They were confiscated as war booty; would Lincoln return them to their owners after the war was over? If so, they were not free at all. Along with this, what was Lincoln doing to end the war? It was far from clear that the North could win in 1863. Lee had many victories, and now England had entered in support of the Confederacy. In my opinion, it was Ericsson’s Monitors that allowed the North to stop the British and win, but it appears that, in 1863, only the British navy realized that their power had been neutralized, and the south was lost.
Lincoln was cryptically brief when it came to slavery or peace: 271 words. About half the speech is devoted to the brave men who struggled here; the other half speaks of “the Nation,” or the “government.” Not the United States, the Union, the North, the South, but an undefined entity that Lincoln claims came into existence 70 years earlier, in 1776. Most educated people would have said that 1776 created no nation or government, only a confederation of independent states as described by the articles of confederation. Under these articles, these 13 states could only act by consensus and had the right to leave at will. To the extent that anyone held the South was bound now, it was because of the Constitution, signed ten years later, but Lincoln does not mention the Constitution at all– perhaps because most Democrats, understood the Constitution to allow departure. Also, to the extent the Constitution mentions slavery, it’s not to promote equality, but to give each slave 3/5 the vote-power of a free man. If “created equal” is to come from anywhere, it’s the Declaration, but most people understood the intent of the Declaration differently from the vision Lincoln now presented.
As far as most people understood it, The Declaration claimed the God-given right to separate from England and gain us a measure of self-rule — something that the South now claimed for itself, but Lincoln opposed. Further, we claimed in The Declaration, that British mis-management made the separation necessary, and listed the abhorrent offenses including suspension of habeas corpus, and the confiscation of property without process of law — things Lincoln was doing even now. Even the introductory phrase, created equal, was not understood to imply that everyone was equal. Rather, as Stephen Douglass pointed out in their 1858 Chicago debate, we’d created a nation “by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such a manner as they should determine.”
Where was Lincoln coming from? What was he saying that November day? It’s been speculated that Lincoln was proposing a secular religion of administered freedom. There appears to be some legitimacy here, but more I suspect Lincoln was referring to the UNANIMITY requirement behind the Declaration — by agreement all the states had to agree to independence, or we would all stay bound to Britain. If we had to unanimously bind ourselves, we must have unanimously bound ourselves to some shared vision of the union or democracy, -presumably that all were created equal. Five years earlier, William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, had given Lincoln a book of sermons by Theodore Parker, a Boston Unitarian. That volume includes the following section marked by Lincoln in reference to what the unanimous binding entailed: “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.” Whether Lincoln was now speaking in direct reference to this line, or more-likely, as I suspect, to a more general refutation of the claims of Southern separation and of Douglas’s 1858 white man claim, Lincoln’s understanding of the import of the Declaration was one that few understood or agreed with. The North still had slaves — Grant’s wife for example, and there was no obvious desire for a new birth of freedom, just an end to the war. Lincoln’s words thus must have sounded like gobbledygook to the majority of learned ears.
Based on the events and issues of the time, and the un-obvious point of the speech, I’d say the editors were justified in their ill review. Further, the issues that bothered them then, abuse of power, citizen and states’ rights, remain as relevant today as ever. Do the current editors see any import of the 9th and 10th amendment limiting the power of federal government? If so, what. Thus, I’m a bit disappointed that the Union & Patriot retracted its review of Lincoln’s short speech with nothing more than claiming to see things differently today. We stand on LIncoln’s shoulders now, and though we see the nation, and the Declaration, through his eyes, their issues remain, and the original review gives perspective on the nation as it looked at a very different time. Thus, while I understand the editors desire to look correct in retrospect, I’d prefer if the current editors would have left the review, or at least addressed the points that bothered their earlier colleagues. It’s a needed discussion. When every person thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.
January 6, 2014 by Robert E. Buxbaum, a doctor of Philosophy (in Chemical Engineering). Here is a translation of the Address into Jive. And into yeshivish. I’ve also written an essay on a previous retraction (regarding GM food). If Lincoln had a such a long address, how did he ever get mail?