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's words came from the heart. The blood bath of the war, and the loss of his own second child, Willie, in 1862, had slowly changed his religious outlook. The secular fatalist of old began to turn into a religious fatalist. He jotted down for himself perhaps in 1862: "The will of God prevails." Something of the Calvinism of his parents that he rejected, even ridiculed, in his youth, started to reclaim him. In his Second Inaugural Address he would explain his course: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right. . . ." God helped Lincoln "to see the right" of abolishing slavery and leading the country toward black citizenship.
If God loomed ever larger in Lincoln's thought as the war went on, if his words at Gettysburg spoke deeply to the devout, they spoke also to a more secular people, for in some part he remained one of them. He would not join a church, could not embrace the Christian conception of sin and redemption, kept mostly silent about Jesus, and showed no inclination to build a personal relationship with God. The secularists could understand his Gettysburg speech largely on their own terms. Lincoln spoke from the heart to them, too.
A lesser person might have foundered on such bifurcation. Christians might have rejected him for not being sufficiently committed; the more secular minded for being too religious. Instead, the majorities embraced him as one of their own. His words at Gettysburg show how he did it. "Inauguration" is how the printed "Programme" described the ceremonies. In his own copy, Edward Everett, the main orator of the day, crossed out the word and replaced it with the religious "consecration." As for Lincoln, he stayed in the middle, and so reached out to all. His success depended in no small part on the beauty of his language. But with all the fresh graves around, the beautiful words would not hide the fact that the war had to go on. It had to-until victory was won.
The rationalism of the Enlightenment combined with Protestant conscience. Lincoln's nine sentences had been welcomed by applause, interrupted by applause five times, and followed by applause. His perhaps 2 ½-minute speech grew into something like three minutes. The people loved him. Lincoln had both voiced the beliefs of mainstream America and urged it on toward a "new birth." He reflected the oratory of the ancient Greeks, especially Pericles, whose speeches appeared in the McGuffey readers that educated America's children. His conclusion echoed not only those of Parson Weems's bestselling Life of Washington but words memorized by generations of children from their readers-some of the best-known words of American history, and of Lincoln's youth-the conclusion of Daniel Webster's 1830 reply to South Carolina's Robert Hayne in the Senate, denying that the U.S. government was a "creature" of the states. It was "the people's government," Webster said, "made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people." In the Bible, Lincoln had read many times the book of Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." He was providing a vision "for us, the living."