The Silliness of Mr. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

“Four score and seven years ago”, something happened. You probably remember Mr. Lincoln’s speech, but do you remember what he was talking about?

The battle at Gettysburg had been a bloody mess and four months later, as Lincoln dedicated the new cemetery, only half of the dead had been moved from the battlefield. And still, the murderous war raged on with no end in sight.

But “four score and…”? Well, it was still a new country and much had happened around that time. There had been the other long war – a “Tea Party” and years of desperate battles against a superior enemy. There had been the unlikely – almost incredible – victory over the British, and free elections to form a new government. There had been the new Constitution and Bill of Rights.

These were all essential to the “new nation”, but they were not its heart.

As he stood to speak at Gettysburg, Mr. Lincoln stared into a dark sea of humanity; thousands of people dressed mostly in black, who had come mostly to hear someone else. There was a black silk band on Lincoln’s own hat; he was grieving the death of another young son. He stood but felt dizzy and weak; he was in the early stages of smallpox with a fever and severe headache. He spoke – just ten sentences – then sat down. His comments were so brief the audience was not sure he was done. There was an awkward silence, mild applause.

The Chicago Times described Lincoln’s speech as “silly, flat and dishwatery utterances” fit to make “the cheek of every American… tingle with shame”. The local Patriot-News called his address “silly remarks” deserving “the veil of oblivion”. Lincoln himself felt the speech had failed.

And perhaps it did because what Mr. Lincoln considered the heart of this new nation is not such an easy thing to admire when you are in the fog of war. People want assurances. They want to be lifted on a flood of consolation or rage or some other useful emotion. They don’t want to hear that the current trouble, which is bitter enough, could bring down the entire nation if we’re not careful.

We think better of Mr. Lincoln’s speech now. We write it on monuments and have our children memorize it for school plays, not because we are smarter than his original audience, but because, from our viewpoint in history, it is easy to see he was right.

So, what happened “four score and seven years” before Gettysburg? It was, of course, the Declaration of Independence, a piece of paper that launched “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.

The Declaration’s certainty that citizens “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” was not one of the courageous acts that brought this nation into existence; it was the idea that made those acts possible and reasonable. It was the idea that drove Mr. Lincoln to hope “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.”

We, too, are now in the fog of war, stuck in a conflict we didn’t start and don’t know how to stop. We long for assurances, for help, for strong leaders to keep us safe. We may even be tempted to think there is a better way than freedom – just until this is over – a safe way for the government to manage us for our own good. Perhaps this is possible. But I hope we remember the risk.

Our system of government is sometimes beautiful, but we did not choose it for its beauty. We chose it because it is true. Men and women really are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. Governments really do derive their just power from the governed. These are facts of the human condition though they are rarely realities of the human experience. And they are rarely realities of the human experience because there is no virus on earth more virulent than humanity. Power corrupts us, whether it is the power to enslave or exploit or abort or dominate in other ways.

Our success thus far as a nation rises from our high view of human responsibility and our low view of human nature. Our government was designed to obstruct itself, through checks and balances and term limits and electoral policies – not because the power of government cannot be used for good, but because we knew it could be used for evil.

What was true in 1776 and true in 1863 remains true today. Our idea of government stands against the flow of human history and much of human nature. We must highly resolve in this – another great crisis in American history – that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — 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.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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