What Lincoln did at Gettysburg in November 1863 was to try to create a brand-new purpose for the war that the North was fighting against the Confederacy. No longer was it to be for the preservation of the union, as he had declared many times in the previous two years, nor for the restoration of forts and armories and customhouses, as he declared in his declaration of war, but now it was to be for the banners of equality and liberty that had been unfurled in the cause of black emancipation.
He began his transformation of purpose 150 years ago this month with a distortion of history that claimed that the United States had been committed to equality and liberty in its original form and the present conflict was to preserve a nation “so conceived and so dedicated.” For this purpose he had to declare that the nation began “four score and seven years ago” — i.e. 1776 — which is rank and utter nonsense. There was no nation when the colonies issued a Declaration of Independence to explain their rebellion and there didn’t become one until the Constitution was ratified thirteen years later. And that Constitution, and the nation that it created, had nothing to do with being “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” a complete absurdity for in fact it makes no mention of equality at all — and indeed endorses the institution of slavery.
The preamble does make a passing reference to “secure the blessings of liberty,” but nowhere in the document are there any articles or enumerated powers relating to liberty in any guise. Indeed the aristocratic Founding Fathers would have thought the idea of governmental machinery dedicated to liberty, much less equality, would be ludicrous — neither of them can be legislated — and they had no intention of setting up a nation that would try to achieve those undefinable and unachievable goals. Then, furthering his distortion, Lincoln declared that the cause for which the Union soldiers “gave their last full measure of devotion” was “a new birth of freedom,” when we can be sure that this was the farthest thing from their minds, since no one had ever told them that was why they were fighting. They certainly weren’t fighting for the freedom of the North, since that was never threatened. They were obviously not fighting for the freedom of the South, since that is precisely what they were against. They were not even fighting for a new birth of freedom for the slaves of the South, since that too had not previously been declared a cause for the war, not even after the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation 10 months earlier.
And as for the idea with which Lincoln ended his speech — that ours was a government of, by, and for the people — I’m afraid that too would have seemed a peculiar idea to the Fathers. The government they created was very careful to limit the powers of “the people,” making sure that the senior house, the Senate, was not to be elected by the general populace, of whom they tended to have a very dim view, but by the state legislatures. And even the voters for the House of Representatives were limited according to state regulations, in which a majority of the states had various property requirements, as they did for candidates to the Electoral College.
We may get some idea of how the Fathers regarded “the people” from an 1813 letter that Jefferson, one of the most democratically inclined crafters of the Constitution, wrote to John Adams. He hoped, he said, that “the natural aristocracy” of this country, of which he considered himself a part, “may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves wholesome control over their public affairs,” and hopes that “the mobs of great cities” and “the class of artificers as the panderers of vice” never have a say in those matters. Government was certainly not, and not meant to be, of or by the people, though it was surely for them, as any natural aristocracy would provide.
An entirely fraudulent address, then, that Abraham Lincoln (so ably) created, and especially important because it served not only to give the war a new direction and purpose (and a new high moral ground from which to unsheathe a “terrible swift sword” against the South) but also in a sense to give the nation that he was hoping to create, which was to be centralized and Washington-centered as never before, a central purpose. Whether it was wise to set this land on a course for 150 years of trying to achieve equality, an impossible abstract that requires an ever-more-powerful government to try to accomplish, and to do so by depending not on the states but on an amorphous thing called “the people,” we may leave to history to decide.
Kirkpatrick Sale, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is the author of 12 books, including most recently “Emancipation Hell: The Tragedy Wrought by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation 150 Years Ago.”