A Speech That Defined America – For Good And Ill

Richard Gamble rethinks Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, describing it as when “the wartime president fused his epoch’s most powerful and disruptive tendencies—nationalism, democratism, and German idealism—into a civil religion indebted to the language of Christianity but devoid of its content”:

For anyone who does not already know something specific about the Civil War, the speech creates no picture in the mind. It could be adapted to almost any battlefield in any war for “freedom” in the 19th century or thereafter. Perhaps the speech’s vacancies account for its longevity and proven usefulness beyond 1863—even beyond America’s borders. Lincoln’s speech can be interpreted as a highly compressed Periclean funeral oration, as Garry Wills showed definitively in his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg. But unlike Pericles’ performance, this speech names no Athens, no Sparta, no actual time, place, people, or circumstances at all.

Into this empty vessel Lincoln poured the 19th-century’s potent ideologies of nationalism, democratism, and romantic idealism. Together, these movements have become inseparable from the modern American self-understanding. They have become part of our civil religion and what we likewise ought to call our “civil history” and “civil philosophy”—that is, religion, history, and philosophy pursued not for their own sake, not for the truth, but deployed as instruments of government to tell useful stories about a people and their identity and mission.

Gamble goes on to argue that all this amounted to redefining America, as Lincoln put in his speech, as a nation dedicated to a “proposition” – that all men were created equal – and that this proved problematic:

Embedded in the Gettysburg Address, the proposition defined the making of America and why it fought a costly war. We cannot know how Lincoln would have wielded the proposition in pursuit of America’s postwar domestic and foreign policy; his death in 1865 left that question open, as Republicans and even Democrats used the martyred president and his words to endorse everything from limited government to consolidated power, from anti-imperialism to overseas expansion. Under all this confusion, however, Lincoln’s propositional nation helped move America from the old exceptionalism to the new. He helped America become less like itself and more like the emerging European nation-states of mid-century, each pursuing its God-given benevolent mission.

A propositional nation like Lincoln’s is “teleocratic,” in philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s use of the word, as distinct from “nomocratic.” That is, it governs itself by the never-ending pursuit of an abstract “idea” rather than by a regime of law that allows individuals and local communities to live ordinary lives and to find their highest calling in causes other than the nation-state. Lincoln left all Americans, North and South, with a purpose-driven nation.

But, at the time, not everyone understood the greatness of the speech. The Patriot-News printed this correction last week:

In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.

You can read Lincoln’s speech here.