In his latest project, The Address, the acclaimed filmmaker focuses on Lincoln’s most famous speech and the efforts of a group of young students to memorize and recite it. Burns recently talked to National Geographic about the documentary, which premieres April 15 on PBS.
Tag Archives: Gettysburg Address
By Michael Lynch
I didn’t really start taking the Gettysburg Address seriously until one day when I was in grad school, trying to figure out how to finish a paper while eating a roast beef sandwich. I was enrolled in a seminar on the early national period, and my professor had told us to write an essay answering the following question: Who was more prescient, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson? Of these two men who had very different visions of what America should be, which one saw the country’s future direction more clearly?
My instinct was to go with Hamilton. In terms of policy, he was probably the most forward-looking of all the Founders, envisioning a United States with a vigorous, centralized government and a modern, diversified economy. The overall course of American history has been in this direction, especially since the late nineteenth century.
At the same time, in terms of ideology and values—what Americans have believed about themselves and their country, and what they have wanted to believe about their role in the world—Jefferson casts a long shadow. If the overall trend of the operation of government and economics has been Hamiltonian, Jefferson’s ideals have been the ones espoused most frequently. In fact, it’s in terms of equality that Hamilton and the other Federalists look most antiquated, committed as they were to older ideas about elitism and deference. “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” according to G.K. Chesterton. “That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence….It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”
I knew that I’d probably end up hedging a little, noting that while Hamilton was more prescient in terms of the way America has operated, Jefferson was more influential in terms of Americans’ self-definition. But that answer seemed a little wishy-washy. I wanted to come up with some sort of definitive answer.
So I was sitting at an Arby’s restaurant, trying to knock out an outline for the paper while getting a bite to eat, when I figured out how to give both Hamilton and Jefferson their due. Neither man was totally correct. It was Abraham Lincoln who understood America most clearly, because at Gettysburg he reconciled these two different visions of the nation so that each one supported the other. Lincoln oversaw a Hamiltonian war—a war of national consolidation, and a war that would result in a more commercial nation with a more vigorous central government—but he did it to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Indeed, he did it while invoking Jefferson, chapter and verse.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied the birth of America to the promise of liberty and Jefferson’s 1776 “proposition” that all men are created equal. “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” he had claimed shortly before his presidency. Lincoln praised Jefferson because his Declaration of Independence did not merely justify the Revolution. Jefferson had used that document to set down “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
In 1863, the American experiment to work out this “abstract truth”—an experiment only “four score and seven years” old—would either survive and vindicate government of the people, or it would collapse and call the whole enterprise of popular government into question. If a minority could dissolve the Union due to the outcome of an election, democracy by majority rule was unworkable. To Lincoln, secession was therefore an existential threat to democratic government itself. The stakes in the Civil War were breathtakingly high. The survival of popular government was what the men buried at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion” to defend.
Lincoln thus believed that the Hamiltonian tools of a consolidated Union and an active national government were necessary to secure the Jeffersonian principles of liberty and equality. These tools would also be the means to extend these Jeffersonian ideals to the enslaved. The war would not only secure what the Founders had gained, but finish what they had left undone by resolving the great American contradiction of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.
Rather than merely dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln explained the meaning of America, defined the purpose of the war, paid tribute to the dead, exhorted his audience to continue their struggle on behalf of freedom, and reconciled the two seemingly contradictory American impulses of Union and liberty. And he did it in less than three hundred words.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.
In 1863 a Harrisburg newspaper had some harsh words for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
This week, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the speech, the paper retracted that statement, calling it “a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”
For some time, historians have identified Abraham Lincoln’s face in a photograph of the 1863 Gettysburg cemetery dedication where he gave his famous address. Now there is a dispute over the possibility that Lincoln might be visible in another photo taken at the ceremony, with two researchers each identifying different faces as Lincoln’s. The new issue of Smithsonian magazine has detailed coverage of the controversy; you can read the article and examine an interactive version of the photograph by clicking here.
Kevin Coyne, who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, discusses the lessons writers should learn from Lincoln:
Writing doesn’t get much clearer than the Gettysburg Address, the first thing I ask my students to read. It’s barely a third of the length of an op-ed column. As Garry Wills has memorably pointed out, Lincoln is reimagining America from the very first line, by taking Jefferson’s words to heart in a way that the slaveholding Jefferson himself did not, and by elevating the Declaration of Independence, with its promise that “all men are created equal,” above the Constitution, which reneges on that promise, as the defining document of our nation. If you’re going to ask a boy from Maine to die fighting a boy from Georgia in a field in Pennsylvania, you’d better be clear on why, and he was.
Robert Brustein has a tongue-in-cheek take on this question.
Here are a few links to enjoy as you celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 203rd birthday.
- Here’s an interesting piece on Lincoln’s changing image in popular culture.
- Contrary to widespread belief, Lincoln’s birthday is not commemorated in any official national holiday. The Christian Science Monitor explains why.
- Does the GOP still wear the mantle of its first president? The chairman of Delaware’s Republican State Committee says yes, while Jackie Hogan argues that Lincoln would be a hard sell among today’s Republicans.
- California kindergarten students find memorizing the Gettysburg Address to be nothing they can’t handle.
- A supposed portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln that one adorned the governor’s mansion in Springfield, IL was, as it turns out, created to defraud Lincoln’s descendants.
- Finally, here’s a report on the new Center for Education and Leadership, which opens this month as the latest addition to Ford’s Theatre.