Why White Liberals Misread Lincoln and Trump’s Gettysburg Address
Today in the North if you mention “the war,” you need to be specific. Revolutionary, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, or the war on terrorism. Whatever the war, from the Revolutionary war and the Declaration of Independence to the present, if you talk to a Northerner, in 2020, you need to be specific. To the conservative Southerner there is only one war that matters, and it is the Civil War. In fact you need to be clear that when speaking to a conservative Southerner, if you are referencing another conflict you need to be specific and call it by the name of the conflict or the assumption is you are talking about the big one, the Civil War. For the Christian, their entire religion dates from the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. To the Southerner according to Mark Twain, “In the South the war is what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it.” It too is their modern American religion.
The Northerners do not get this. They still do not get it. In large part because the reconciliation at the end of the Civil war gave legitimacy to the idea of treason as part of the nation’s reconciliation. The Southerners are not bad people, “the disagreement” can be civil. We can welcome home the prodigal men and women and the ideology that sought to dissolve our union into the halls of our nation federal and state legislatures and resolve our problems not on a battlefield but in political parties that have for more than 160 years of national memory legitimized the losing sides point of view. Henry Charles Carey was the leading 19th century economist of the American School of Capitalism and Chief economic advisor to President Abraham Lincoln had this to say, “ from that date the abandonment of the older state proceeded with a rapidity never before known, and with it grew the domestic slave trade and the pro-slavery feeling.”
Let me be clear slavery was wrong morally and politically and those who sought to defend it and continue to defend it are still wrong. So, it should come as no surprise that Trump wants to accept the Republican nomination for president in 2020 at Gettysburg. For liberals in the media, it’s just a stunt, for Trump’s hard core base, they appreciate Bannon and Steve Millers efforts to continue this national discord for several more centuries.
The battle at Gettysburg made places such as Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, Big Round Top, and Devil’s Den famous, along with the northern names of Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and the Twentieth Maine, the First Minnesota and General Governor K. Warren. For the South, the name of a thirty-eight-year-old general, George Pickett, was forever made infamous when Lee ordered him to conduct “Pickett’s Charge,” an almost suicidal foray against Union troops. It was a great northern victory, but a total of more than fifty thousand men had given of their blood or lives—as many as twenty-three thousand Union casualties and twenty-eight thousand southern men killed, wounded or missing, more than a third of Lee’s army. The combination of victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg turned out to be the all-important turning point in the war.
The burial of the Gettysburg dead was originally planned for October 23 but rescheduled to November 19 because the principal orator, Edward Everett of Massachusetts, could not be ready before then. Lincoln, by comparison, was casually invited to attend and make a few remarks. “No insult was intended. Federal responsibility or participation was not assumed, then, in state activities. And Lincoln took no offense. Though specifically invited to deliver only ‘a few appropriate remarks’ to open the cemetery, he meant to use this opportunity. The partly mythical victory of Gettysburg was important to his
administration’s war propaganda,” according to Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg. There are mythical accounts that Lincoln wrote his Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Even though the 272-word speech probably took less than three minutes to deliver—interrupted with applause five times by the twenty thousand in attendance—such cavalier preparation would have been totally uncharacteristic of Lincoln, who took such opportunities very seriously.
Lincoln intended to use this occasion and speech to lift the nation’s eyes above the death and carnage at Gettysburg “to a level of abstraction that purges it of grosser matter…. Lincoln did for the whole Civil War what he accomplished for the single battlefield,” said Wills. He transformed its meaning and in so doing transformed what it meant to be an American.
Lincoln mentioned neither slavery nor Gettysburg. He drained his speech of all particulars in order to lift up an ideal. Lincoln intended to create something good and new out of this tragic and bloody episode. Both North and South strove to interpret Gettysburg to further their own war interests. Lincoln was after an even bigger victory—winning the ideological as well as the military war. And he succeeded. “The Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean. Words had to complete the work of the guns,” Wills continued. When we wave the flag and celebrate on July 4, Independence Day, we are not so much celebrating our American-ness in terms of our independence from England. We are celebrating the meaning of the flag and America as Lincoln interpreted them in his Gettysburg Address. At Gettysburg, Lincoln reinterpreted the Constitution. Looking past slavery in the Constitution, he appealed to the Declaration of Independence and its claim that “all men are created equal.” Conservative political “heirs to this outrage still attack Lincoln for subverting the Constitution at Gettysburg.” Wills admonished.
Lincoln is here not only to sweeten the air at Gettysburg, but to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution—not, as William Lloyd Garrison had, by burning an instrument that countenanced slavery. He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise, bringing it to its own indictment. By implicitly doing this, he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new Constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.43
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was transforming the United States from a plural to a singular noun—from the United States are into the United States is a free government. According to Garry Wills, Lincoln, by his words and actions, converted the Union from a mystical hope into a constitutional reality.
Current scholars and politicians call the Gettysburg Address just as authoritative a statement of the American spirit as the Declaration of Independence, perhaps more so because it determines how we read the latter. Because the Gettysburg address is “the lens” by which we read the Declaration of Independence, Trump’s acceptance seeks to re-interpret for many Americans who lack this understanding a new definition of freedom going forward. Wills argues that for most people, the
Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, correcting the Constitution in the process without overthrowing it. This spiritual correction and intellectual revolution make attempts to go back beyond Lincoln virtually impossible. “The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind. By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America,” concluded Wills.
Aside from the illegality of using federal land and property for a campaign event, from his appointment of more than 200 federal jurists many of whom are unqualified, Trump seeks to provide for them a new foundation, a foundation and view of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution so that they too might find legitimacy in spreading Trumpism for centuries. From Mount Rushmore to Gettysburg, Trump at the direction of Steve Bannon and Steven Miller want to be remembered not for building a More Perfect Union, at mask less biker rallies in SD and as sources of legitimacy for armed resistance movements at state capitals and legislatures, for an exceptionally long time. After all, President Trump legitimized their behavior and the liberals from the North did nothing about it.
The images below are former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. with Harold Holtzer , Abraham Lincoln historian, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg where Congressman Jackson was the guest speaker.￼