Gettysburg's Good News
Schoolkids learn Lincoln's words at the scene of the epic battle by heart. But what did they really mean?
Lincoln believed that if history would remember him at all, it would be for his Emancipation Proclamation. He invited painters to the White House for months at a time; they portrayed him with broken chains or with the Liberty document in his hand. As an ambitious young man, he had announced that "towering genius" could reach great renown in America by either "emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen." When his oldest friend, Joshua Speed, came to visit in the White House, Lincoln recalled his youthful fear that his moment of life would be gone without a trace. Well, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Now he would be remembered for doing something for "his fellow man."
But here was Gettysburg, the bloodiest of American battles, in the bloodiest war of her history. A "great task" remained before the country: carrying the war to victory. "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain," Lincoln says, and the crowd interrupts with applause as he conjures words that had been hidden inside of so many since their childhood. The applause quiets and Lincoln finishes: "that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Silence-has the president finished?-then long, continued applause. The dedication of the first national cemetery of the country combined the two major cultural activities of the period: politics and religion. Lincoln's words carried no touch of stridency or self-righteousness. Though this was a funeral, he made no overt reference to religion. He gave no indication of being aware of the religious aspect of the occasion, or if he was, he considered it improper to participate. The rowdy night before the ceremonies, when thousands of visitors with few places to sleep rocked the town with an all-night party, provided no edification in this regard. Only after imbibing the atmosphere at the cemetery with its uncovered heads, prayer, and funeral hymns did Lincoln add, in the moment's inspiration, "under God." One can almost hear him coming in his speech to "that the nation shall," pausing for a second, then adding a little awkwardly "under God, have a new birth of freedom." (Later he would revise the word order to make the sentence read better.)
And yet, whatever expectations he may have taken to Gettysburg, however reluctant he was to make a personal profession of Christianity, much of what Lincoln said carried the sounds of the Bible. This was the music of the ancient Hebrew turned into King James's English. This was the language he was raised on. "Four score andseven years ago." Psalm 90: "The days of our years are three score years and ten"; one of the best-known sentences of the Book."Brought forth" is not only the biblical way to announce a birth, including that of Mary's "first born son," but the phrase that describes the Israelites' being "brought forth" from slavery in Egypt.
Birth, sacrificial death, rebirth. A born-again nation. At a less-than-conscious level, Lincoln weaved together the biblical story and the American story. "Fathers." "Conceive." "Perish." "Consecrate." "Hallow." "Devotion." The devout in the cemetery heard Lincoln speak an intimately familiar and beloved language. His words pointing to rebirth went even deeper than the Christian message, reaching the primeval longing for a new birth that humankind has yearned for and celebrated with every spring since time immemorial.