By Charles Adams
In years past, many of us of the older generation had to learn the Gettysburg Address given by president Abraham Lincoln to dedicate the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is chiseled in stone at the Lincoln Memorial and most Americans rank it with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. That it has survived with such reverence is one of the most bizarre aspects of the war, for while it may be good poetry, it certainly lacks good thinking. It reflected Lincoln’s logic, which was based on errors and falsehoods, and did not fit the world of his day. The following is taken, in part, from When in the Course of Human Events by Charles Adams:
“Four score and seven years ago”
By simple arithmetic that would be 1776, when the Revolutionary War started and the Declaration of Independence was signed. That declaration was written with “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” to explain the reasons for the separation of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain. It contained no endowment of governmental power and created no government. The government came later in 1781 with the Articles of Confederation. The articles stated that this confederation was established by “sovereign states,” like many of the leagues of states throughout history. To be accurate, Lincoln should have said “four score and two years ago,” or better still, “three score and fourteen years ago.” Even the Northern newspapers winced. The New York World sharply criticized this historical folly. “This United States” was not created by the Declaration of Independence but “the result of the ratification of a compact known as the Constitution,” a compact that said nothing about equality. Others accused Lincoln of “gross ignorance or willful misstatement.” Yet today, that gross ignorance is chiseled in stone as if it were some great truth like scripture, instead of a willful misstatement.
“Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation”
The federal compact among the former thirteen colonies, the new “sovereign states,” as expressed in the Articles of Confederation in 1781, was not a nation as that term was then and is normally used. That was recently explained by Carl N. Degler, professor of American history at Stanford University, in a memorial lecture given at Gettysburg College in 1990: “The Civil War, in short, was not a struggle to save a failed union, but to create a nation that until then had not come into being.”
Thus, Lincoln’s “new nation” really came into being by force of arms in the war between the states. Lincoln, according to Professor Degler, had a lot in common with Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, who built a united Germany in the nineteenth century and believed that “blood and iron” were the main force for national policy. When it came to blood, Lincoln surpassed them all. The slaughter of Confederate men only matched, on a proportionate basis, the losses incurred by the Russians and the Germans in World War II.
In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he used the word “Union” twenty times but “nation” not at all. But once the South seceded, the term began to disappear, and by the time of the Gettysburg Address, it was the American “nation” that was used, and the word “Union” had disappeared completely.
Thus, the call from Northern peace Democrats – “the constitution as it is; the Union as it was” – seems to make sense, but as Lincoln took over control of the federal government, he soon wanted no part of it. Although he tried to trace the “new nation” back to 1776, he had to ignore history and the intention and words of the Founders, and create a new “gospel according to Lincoln” on the American commonwealth. Lincoln’s new nation had no constitutional basis – no peaceful legal process. It was created by war, by “blood and iron,” like Bismarck’s Germany, and has survived to this day. In a sense, Lincoln did more to create America than did the Founding Fathers. It is Lincoln who is the father of our present country, not George Washington. Lincoln’s Gettysburg reference to the Founders creating a new nation was not true. Just as Julius Caesar created an imperial order out of a republic, so Lincoln created a nation out of a compact among states, and both used their military forces to do so.
“Conceived in liberty”
Some years ago, while I was living in a British colony, we Americans got together on the Fourth of July for a barbecue. One of my older English friends asked me what the celebration was all about. I took the bait and told him it was to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He replied, “Wasn’t that document kind of a farce? All that verbiage about equality of all men and liberty when over a million black people were in bondage for life, and their children and children’s children?” Of course I had no answer, for the term “all men” meant all white men. And to make matters worse, it really meant “white guys,” as white women weren’t much better off. What is not known is that when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, many of the early women’s rights groups asked, How about us too? Thus the declaration that Lincoln refers to in his address, of four score and seven years ago, was not conceived in liberty nor was it dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal. So much for logic and reality.
Lincoln’s logic at Gettysburg, as elsewhere, reveals a trial lawyer with a tool of his craft – using the best logic he can muster to support his client’s (the North’s) case, however bad that case may be. It is also, of course, the craft of a politician, which may explain why so many politicians are lawyers.
“Today we are engaged in a great civil war”
Actually, it wasn’t a civil war as that term was then, and is now, defined. A civil war is a war that breaks out in a nation between opposing groups for control of the state, for example, in Russia in 1917 with the Reds against the Whites or in China in the 1940s.
The War of Rebellion, as the war was called in the North, was really a war for Southern independence. The Southern states had withdrawn from the Union by democratic process – the same process they had followed to join the Union initially. The Northern federation went to war to prevent their secession from the Union just as Britain went to war in 1776 to prevent the colonies from seceding from the British nation. It was the fundamentals of the Revolutionary War, eighty-five years before. It was, if you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, a war of conquest by the North to destroy the Confederacy and to establish a new political leadership over the conquered territories. Illiterate slaves were given the vote, and the rest of the Southern society, the ruling groups, were not permitted to vote. The poor, illiterate blacks were then told by Northern occupation forces to vote as directed, and they did so, infuriating the conquered people and creating a zeal for white supremacy that is only in our time losing its grip on Southern society.
“Testing whether that nation… can long endure”
That comment seems to presuppose that the South was out to conquer the Northern federation. That is as absurd as saying that the revolting colonies in 1776 were out to destroy the British nation. The thirteen colonies’ withdrawal from the British Empire in 1776 was the same as the attempt of the Southern states to withdraw in 1861 from the 1789 federation. In reality, the 1789 federation was not in any danger. It would have endured with secession. Unlike Grant, Lee was not out to conquer the North. In reality, this logic was as absurd as the rest of Lincoln’s funeral oration.
“A final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live”
Again, “that nation” was not in danger of dying – that was not Southern Confederate policy and Lincoln knew it. But again, he was only being a good lawyer, arguing his client’s case as best he could, and with no rebuttal he was an easy winner.
“And that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth”
Why did Lincoln even suggest that secession by the Southern states would mean that democracy would perish from the earth – in America or elsewhere? That was perfect nonsense, and Lincoln knew it, but again, there was no one to rebut his argument.
By 1860, democracy was strongly entrenched throughout Western civilization, and certainly in the American states. The democratic process had emerged decades before in Europe – in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and so on. The war in America for Southern independence was in no way a danger to the concept of government “of the people.” Strange as it may seem, as it turned out, it was Lincoln who was out to destroy governments of the people in the eleven Southern states. The declaration’s assertion that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed” was not an acceptable idea in Lincoln’s mind, so far as the South was concerned. Like a good lawyer, he ignored it.
There were many in the North who, upon reading the Gettysburg Address, saw its logical follies. The New York World noted the president’s “gross ignorance” and reminded him that “this United States” was not created by the Declaration but by a compact known as “the Constitution,” which said nothing about equality. Other newspapers, such as the Chicago Times (which Lincoln had shut down) called the address “a perversion of history.” Still others referred to “the silly remarks of the president.” In this century the logic of the Gettysburg Address has been questioned by none other than H. L. Mencken, a journalist and wit who at times shocked the nation with his strong language as well as logic:
“The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history…. the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination – that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”