Brandeis University Professor John Burt wrote one of the most-praised books about Abraham Lincoln in recent years. In this essay for Constitution Daily, Burt talks about the three verbs that define the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address.
The verbs of the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address are drawn from organic life, and they imagine the United States as a developing child. The new nation is “conceived” (by the Fathers), “brought forth” (upon this continent), and “dedicated” to the proposition that all men are created equal. And the speech ends by projecting a “new birth” of freedom, transmuting, by means of a life-giving idea, the deaths of the men who struggled in that place into a new form of life, held in common by the entire nation, North and South, Black and White. Even the date of the Declaration of Independence (“Fourscore and seven years ago”) is given in terms that call to mind the biblical phrase from Psalm 90 for the length of a human life.
This organic metaphor was noticed at the time by several hostile critics. The New York World, for instance, ridiculed the speech for representing “the ‘fathers’ in the stages of conception and parturition,” and the Boston Daily Courier sneered at the “obstetric allusion.’ But the organic metaphor plays several important purposes in the rhetoric of the speech.
First, as John Channing Briggs has pointed out, if the nation grows like a child, then the founders can beget it and nurture it, and they can dedicate it, but they can’t assemble it or design it. The nation is not to be seen as the product of a contract, something subject to strict construction, and completely subordinated to the plan of the founders, but rather is to be seen as something that grows from within, in its own way, towards ends which it gropingly, and only gradually, realizes. A child like this one, a “dedicated” child, is born with a calling, but it must find its own way to realizing that calling, and even its parents cannot fully understand where that calling will take it, although they know where it began, and how it began to take shape. The “dedication” of the young nation is not merely a covenant, but a baptism, the giving of its true name, the sign that its identity includes a destiny which, at that moment, could only be seen as in a glass darkly.
Defining the war in an unexpected way
A second effect of the organic metaphor of the first sentence is that it enabled Lincoln to define the meaning of the Civil War in an unexpected way. If the nation is a growing child, the Civil War is an almost inevitable, life-threatening childhood trauma which either kills or transforms the child. By phrasing the legacy of the Declaration as a “proposition” rather than as a self-evident truth, Lincoln implied that that legacy has to be tested, has to undergo a trial by fire before its truth can be recognized. What is at stake is not the mere survival of the United States, but whether any society dedicated to equality can survive. Moreover, any society dedicated to equality must risk a similar test, and cannot authentically affirm equality until it has undergone such a test. The republic had to survive the almost mortal test of Civil War as children had to survive the almost mortal test of disease.
The citizens’ watch over their imperiled republic was analogous to the parents’ watch over their dangerously ill children, a touchstone of nineteenth century fiction from Little Nell to Little Eva to Beth March. Lincoln himself, during the ceremony at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, still wore the black band on his hat he put on after the death of his son Willie the previous year.
In all of these novels of the death of children from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Little Women the dying children became a source of transformative wisdom to their grieving families. Eva St. Clair in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, saw the wrong of slavery clearly, and, in dying, brought her father to recognize that wrong, something he had perhaps dimly known from the beginning, but had never fully acknowledged to himself, blinded as he was by the ironies and double-binds of adulthood. The care and grief of the worried parent is transformed into the wisdom given that parent by the dying child, and the direction of the action reverses itself, so that the parents, who dedicated the child, are rededicated by their dying children to a cause the children saw more clearly than their parents did. Indeed, in the final movement of the Gettysburg Address, in which the living are rededicated by the dead, only the experience of mourning their children frees the adults, as Mr. St. Clair is freed, from illusions, in the citizens’ case the illusion that the aim of the war is restoration of the old Union rather than the development of equality, an illusion in which they would otherwise have been imprisoned forever.
The fiery trial of the Union differs in one crucial respect from the deaths of children in 19th century fiction, and that is that a childhood disease is a random event, whereas the trial of democracy is built into the design of democracy itself. Democracy could not develop without this trial, and what democracy becomes under pressure of this trial is more truly what democracy is than what it was beforehand: only the mortal pressure of civil war forces an honest reckoning with the problem of democracy, and without what Melville called the power of a bullet to undeceive, democracy would have settled for an illusory life, a once-born life without a “new birth of freedom.” Without the violence of the war, Union-loyal Americans, Lincoln included, would have settled for that oxymoron, a slaveholder democracy. Further, without the proper reflection on the meaning of the war, Lincoln implies, America might settle for another oxymoron, racist democracy. The war, this is to say, is a necessary episode in the becoming of democracy, without which democracy cannot come to fulfillment.
When we wonder whether a nation will “endure” we wonder rather more than merely whether it will be able to continue. “Enduring” is something you do, something that requires stern strength of will; “surviving” is just something that happens to you. To endure is to face down suffering; indeed, it is to continue bear the mark of that suffering past the end of suffering. Even more than “survive,” the word “endure” registers a continuing struggle for life, and registers also that the struggle itself is somehow transformative. Those who “survive” may be exhausted and emptied by the experience, but those who “endure” have proven something about themselves that otherwise might not have been expected.
Because the war is a necessary if almost fatal trauma in the growth of democracy neither side stands in a position of moral privilege relative to the other: the nation must be tested, and North and South both have roles to play in that test. The war is not the outcome of a malign conspiracy of slaveholders seeking to confirm themselves in power. Nor is it a crusade by opponents of slavery against a signal evil. The war is a trial given to North and South on account of slavery, an unavoidable although dangerous episode in the coming to be of democracy, necessary because of their mutual complicity in slavery.
Conceiving of the war as an necessary trial of democracy also enabled Lincoln to account not only for the meaning of the war, but also for why it was so violent, so long, and so inconclusive, for the Republic was given to suffer until it learned to repudiate certain corrupt values — slavery and inequality — which it not only held deeply but felt to be constitutive of its politics; the extended slaughter of the war was necessary to disabuse both North and South of crippling illusions about democracy.
Defining American life
A third effect of Lincoln’s organic metaphor was to enable us to see America as an organic collective form of life, as a nation rather than as merely a state, as something that has a biography, not just a history. A state is a body of concrete institutions, laws, deliberative bodies, agencies of enforcement, regulation, and registration — an organization having a monopoly over the means of violence, to cite Max Weber’s pungent definition of the state from “Politics as a Vocation.” A nation is something muddier but deeper. To a first approximation, a nation is a people, but what makes a mass of human beings a people is hard to say.
In the 19th century, the role of making a mass of people into a nation was sometimes attributed to blood, and more often to blood’s metaphorical cousins, culture and language. Under that definition of “nation,” it is hard to see that the term applies to the United States, whether in the 19th or in the 21st century. The United States has typically imagined itself, except in eras of xenophobic frenzy such as the 1920s, or the 1850s (or the present), as a nation of newcomers. The reason immigration can make one American is, as Lincoln argued in his 1858 Chicago speech, that political traditions in America stand in the place cultural history and language and blood do in other nations. To be American is not a matter of blood but a matter of an idea.
When Matthew Arnold encountered the word “proposition” in the Gettysburg Address, he is said to have reacted with disgust at the clash between the high biblical rhetoric of the opening phrase and the descent to the language of legal pettifogging at its conclusion. But “proposition” is a word that has majesty for Lincoln, because it suggests to him the principled drawing of a line, the definition of an identity-giving and life-risking moral stake. A proposition is something one might nail to a cathedral door, or put one’s name to, hazarding one’s life and one’s sacred honor. A proposition is something one might be dedicated to.
A proposition about equality
Whatever the provenance of the word, the contrast between the organic “bringing forth” of the new nation, and the metaphysical “proposition” to which it is dedicated, captures something of the central crux of the idea that something like the United States can be a nation: it is made a nation not by blood or history but by an identity-founding commitment to a value, available to everyone, but given special local salience by being tested there and then. This is why that proposition is about human equality, rather than about self-rule or limited government, because equality is a value intended to transcend concrete political traditions and to resist being seen merely as the upshot of a particular history and particular traditions, as, say the “rights of Englishmen” are. America is the nation whose identity is created by its being in a position to test values it hopes will be found good for all nations; its uniqueness is given to it by its calling of testing a set of values which, if they stand the test, are not then to be seen as unique to it but as universal.
The word “proposition” captures the common awareness that American identity both is and is not organic. For the immigrant, it is something chosen, but chosen in a way that has the identity-making power of something given. For the native-born, it is something given, but is taken as if it were chosen, the fruit of agency rather than agency’s precondition. That is why the sentence uses the metaphor of baptism: the nation is “dedicated” to a proposition, given its identity in that proposition, called into being as a test of that proposition, discovering its meaning in piecing together the significance and the consequences of that proposition.
The aim of this dedication, the value Lincoln saw as at the heart of the prospective American character, is equality, a value in fact not achieved by the United States then or now. Lincoln’s choice, like his choice of the founding moment in 1776 rather than in 1787, the sweeping promises of the Declaration rather than the painful and exacting compromises of the Constitution, was a polemical one. One could easily imagine another figure choosing self-rule, the consent of the governed, before choosing equality. Or Lincoln could have chosen the three inalienable rights, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Lincoln chose equality because it seemed to him to be somehow logically prior to all of the others, because only moral equality enables one to distinguish between self-rule as the political project of moral autonomy and self-rule as merely the habit of honor among thieves. Only equality founds self-rule in respect for the human person; without equality self-rule is little more than the privilege of exemption from servitude.
What the Civil War tests, Lincoln argued, is not only, as he might have said earlier, whether a government of the people would be able to preserve its stability in the face of disagreements, or whether it must ever fracture into ever smaller Confederacies whenever it faces a conflict. The issue was not even, as Lincoln had also said elsewhere, only whether a minority can contest by force the majority’s fairly won power to rule, whether the minority can claim by the bullet what it had lost by the ballot. The central issue, from which all of the other issues depended, was whether any government was capable of making and keeping the promise of equality. As the issue of slavery somehow underlay the issue of the tariff, of internal improvements, and of strict or loose construction of the Constitution, so under all of the other things at stake in the war, under Union, under political stability, under majority rule, lay the issue of racial equality.
Lincoln did not say that the equality he had in mind was racial equality. But he did not have to, since class equality or gender equality or ethnic equality were not at the center of a great war. Freedom and equality are not contrary values for Lincoln, for freedom as a political value depends upon the mutual acknowledgment of free persons as free persons; freedom is agency, and agency happens only among moral equals. That is why, towards the end of the speech, Lincoln imagined that the fruit of a victory in a war over moral equality will be a “new birth of freedom,” the transformation of freedom into a deeper thing than the ability of the strong to exploit the weak without interference by any third party. The new birth of freedom can only be a new depth of acknowledgment, such as that later embodied in the three Reconstruction amendments to the constitution, whose actual contents Lincoln had not yet imagined, and which the Republic had no sooner articulated than it thoroughly betrayed.
Lincoln did not specify the particulars of the new birth of freedom, although certainly it has something to do with the proposition that all men are created equal. The realization of a new commitment to equality, not mere military victory, is the test of Union success in the war. We will not know who really won the war, Lincoln argued, until we know what kind of Union emerges out of it. Lincoln did not in so many words press the issues that were later embodied in the three Reconstruction Amendments, only the first of which could have been in his focal attention anyway. But the test of a new birth of freedom is a stern one, and it is not certain even to this day how close our Republic is to passing that test.
John Burt is a Professor of English at Brandeis University and the author of “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism.”
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