Vail Daily column: The Gettysburg Address shaped the Constitution
Ryan Summerlin November 23, 2013
This past Nov. 19 marked the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” He used this occasion to advocate inclusive equality in the Constitution.
Referring to the Declaration of Independence at the onset of his remarks, Lincoln refuted a familiar reading of the Constitution, which the founding fathers approved that allowed slavery. Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg convinced many to revise the Constitution, freeing those enslaved.
Some wrongly assume Lincoln, pressed for time because the Civil War went badly, dashed off the “Gettysburg Address.” Some picture him taking a slip of paper, jotting eloquent sentences on it as he rode in a swaying train, and then inserting this draft into the band of his stovepipe hat. Such lore lacks credibility.
Lincoln’s mind didn’t work this way. The “Gettysburg Address” is a composite of prior pondering mixed with reference to the Declaration of Independence in prior speeches. He immersed himself in the King James Version of the Bible. After memorizing soaring biblical phrases, Lincoln “saw” the completed manuscript in his head. He then transferred these fully formed insights wrapped in fitting words to paper.
John Nicolay, one of the president’s two secretaries, recorded how Lincoln transformed clear mental images into spell-binding prose. “There is no record of when Mr. Lincoln wrote the first sentences of his proposed address,” Nicolay recollected in 1894. “He probably followed his usual habit in such matters; using great deliberation in arranging his thoughts, and molding his phrases mentally, waiting to reduced them to writing until they had taken satisfactory form.”
Lincoln undermined slavery’s legitimacy in the opening of the address. Using literary precision like a scalpel, he amputated slavery from the body of the Constitution, with supporters of it feeling no ill effects.
Sounding like Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to recalcitrant people, he began with quasi-biblical overtones: “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.” The raging Civil War and carnage on the Gettysburg battlefield tested whether “that nation or any nation so conceived or so dedicated can long endure.”
Will it? According to Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence’s scalpel needed to amputate the malignant growth of slavery from the Constitution.
Most who signed the Constitution denied equality to African Americans. Owners regarded slaves as property. The crowd which listened to Lincoln’s brief words took for granted that the nation would be composed of slaves and free citizens. The president’s trenchant remarks on the field of battle presented a new view of the Constitution: They outlawed slavery. Listeners arrived on the battlefield with slavery as given. They departed with a new idea of freedom for all.
Historian Garry Wills, in “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America,” researched how the president pulled off this great reversal, from slavery as a given to freedom for all. Altering the Constitution for the good of all, “Lincoln performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight of hand ever witnessed,” writes Wills. “Everyone in the vast throng was having his pocket picked intellectually. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, the new Constitution. Lincoln had substituted for the one they had brought with them.”
Would slain soldiers have died in vain for a new freedom? That’s the challenge Lincoln posed. Were the American people still willing, as had been the “honored dead,” to devote themselves to “that cause for which they (the dead soldiers) gave the last full measure of devotion?”
Lincoln proposed a cure for slavery’s scourge: a revival of will and spirit, much like Christ who required Nicodemus to be “born again” (John 3:3). The president declared the necessity of a “new birth of freedom” so that government of the people included those formerly enslaved to insure our republic “shall not perish from the earth.”
Our call to new birth in this Thanksgiving season doesn’t rise from a battlefield strewn with the dead. It appears in our nation because inequality grows between America’s haves and have-nots. The top 1 percent captured 19.3 percent of U.S. income in 2012. Such an economic imbalance was topped but once. In 1928, 19.67 percent of national income went to the top 1 percent, before an over-leveraged stock market crashed.
The consequences? Economic disparity puts a record number of children on food stamps, shrinks the middle class’s investment power and denies fair opportunity to the masses. Writes Pimco bond king Bill Gross about inequality producing less productivity: “Developed economies work best when inequality of incomes is at a minimum.”
Merely giving an extra turkey to the poor isn’t adequate. Today, what’s needed is the “Gettysburg Address” revisited. Mandate a new birth of economic opportunity. Unshackle an economy tilted toward the few and stretch pocketbook freedom to the many who need it.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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