150 years ago, outside a small town in central Pennsylvania, Abraham Lincoln dedicated a military ceremony on a field that just a few months before had witnessed a clash between two vast armies. The Union victory at Gettysburg between July 1-3, 1863 repelled General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, killed any lingering hopes the slaveholding South had of acquiring diplomatic recognition from Britain and France, and forced the Confederacy into fighting a defensive war of attrition. Coupled with the near-simultaneous capture of the last Rebel stronghold on the Mississippi, it marked a turning point in the conflict, and restored flagging faith in the loyal states that the conflict was winnable. Gettysburg is still the best-known battle of the Civil War, the subject of an interminable movie (a 271 minute director’s cut) and plenty of interminable monographs. One scholarly work – which limits itself to the second day of the fighting – weighs in at over 600 pages. Had Lee fired it at Union positions, the outcome of the conflict might have been very different.

Gettysburg seems to encourage long-windedness: the speaker preceding Lincoln on November 19, 1863, the renowned orator Edward Everett, kept the crowd waiting with a two hour peroration. In fairness, Everett’s discourse was a model of classical composition, and won much praise from contemporaries, but it has suffered in comparison to the 270 or so words that followed from the president. Though little-noticed at the time, Lincoln’s pithy dedication has aged rather well, becoming (for Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who has urged Americans to record themselves reciting the speech) part of the ‘glue’ that binds the United States together. Like the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the Gettysburg Address stands in the Pantheon of patriotic texts, a secular hymn that echoes beyond its historical context.

Yet as our external examiner Adam Smith – who despite being a Brit, has taken up Burns’s challenge – points out, the Address is an unremarkable document, which adds little to what we already know about Lincoln. Reminding Americans of their revolutionary inheritance, the president argued that the Union dead at Gettysburg did not die in vain, but had sacrificed their lives to realise the democratic promise of the Declaration of Independence: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” My summary hardly does justice to the extraordinary cadence of Lincoln’s prose, which as Adam notes, helps to explain its enduring popularity. But Adam is exactly right to see it in most respects as a typical wartime speech.

Where I might diverge from Adam’s interpretation, though, is the comparison to Churchill. The Address might have been a ‘rallying cry,’ but Lincoln’s speech is an ocean apart from its British rivals. Our best-known pieces of political rhetoric – ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman,’ even ‘The lady’s not for turning’ – are statements of defiance flung in the face of a supposedly stronger foe. In the Gettysburg Address, the foe is invisible: the Confederacy does not warrant a single mention, leading at least one eminent historian to mistakenly conclude that Lincoln was honouring the Rebel war dead as well as their Union counterparts. The President’s war cry, then, avoids any overt attempt to rally the North against a common enemy, but rather challenges the nation to honour its dead by living up to its founding principles. To do so, Lincoln implies, will prove to the world the viability of the Union’s democratic experiment. Churchill’s speeches, however much they might be cherished by Atlanticists, are rooted in a moment: Britain, 1940. Lincoln, by way of contrast, offered something in the Gettysburg Address that transcended its immediate time and place.  Perhaps that’s why it’s been embraced by so many people beyond the U.S. When Soviet tanks rolled in to Budapest in 1956, for instance, Hungarian Free Radio played the speech over and over again. Radio 4 are dedicating a program to it at 8pm tonight. You can even buy a CD with Margaret Thatcher reciting the Address.[1]

Yet while the Address has acquired a life of its own since 1863, it was very much of the moment when delivered. Though Lincoln didn’t mention slavery once – a point students at Sheffield rarely fail to note – Americans would surely have equated ‘a new birth of freedom’ with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation the preceding January. Citizens might have spotted too how the President tied the destruction of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ to the preservation of democracy: a common Republican response to Democratic claims that white liberty depended on black subjugation. And some would doubtless have wondered whether his rousing words were enough to win over the growing ranks of northern dissenters – some of whom had taken to the streets of New York in July in a deadly race riot – who questioned whether fighting a war to end slavery was worth the spilling of white blood. Lincoln, indeed, spent much of the next year expecting to lose the upcoming presidential election, and when he won a second term in 1864, it was due to battlefield victories rather than stirring speeches. And this is for me captures another irony of the Address. Lincoln’s ‘political genius’, as the recent Spielberg film clearly saw it, lay in his pragmatism and patience. Frustrated ‘Radicals’ – abolitionists who saw slavery as a great moral evil – had little time for him even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet in the end, it is the words of the savvy politician that have endured.

Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the 19th-century United States. You can read Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.

Image: Elihu Vedder’s ‘Government’ mural, Library of Congress (1896)  [Wikicommons]

[1] Thanks to Ben Dunnell for pointing this out to me.

Tags : American Civil WarAmerican historyBattle of GettysburgEmancipation ProclamationGettysburg Addressnineteenth-century historypolitical rhetoricslavery
Andrew Heath

The author Andrew Heath


  1. Great stuff. I’d add, though, that one of the great things about the Address is not just its invocation of the Declaration of Independence but its conflation of the Declaration and the Constitution. Yes, Lincoln evokes the Declaration in the first paragraph with the date (or 4 score and 7 = 1776) and the phrase “all men are created equal.” But the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people….” actually evokes the Constitution rather than the Declaration, as in the idea of “We the People of the United States” and its implication of popular sovereignty and also, perhaps more tellingly, Daniel Webster’s Second Reply to (Robert) Hayne, Jan 26-27, 1830) during the Nullification Controversy: “It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s Government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.”

  2. Thanks Steve – you’re exactly right about the Constitution, and it’s a rhetorical echo I’ve missed here in falling back on the argument that abolitionists – and Lincoln himself by 1863 – preferred to appeal to the radical promise of 1776 rather than the proslavery legalese of 1787. Lincoln’s antislavery politics was always of the constitutional variety, after all: the Constitution defined the parameters of the possible for him. Thus the refusal to compromise on non-extension in the territories, the use of the War Powers clause to push emancipation after 1861, support for gradual emancipation in the Border States, and the eventual drive for a constitutional amendment to make freedom national.

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