A short background of Lincoln’s short speech

I was thrilled to learn that I’d be teaching the Gettysburg Address this year!  I realized that, before we could give it a rhetorical analysis (AP Lang isn’t a history course), we’d need some historical, philosophical, and metaphorical background. Yay!  I gave students a famous section of Calhoun’s Oregon Bill speech in which he rails against Jefferson and the Declaration’s equality clause, Lincoln’s 1859 letter to a meeting of Boston Republicans on the occasion of Jefferson’s birthday ending with his “All hail to Jefferson” paragraph, portions of the King James Bible’s Luke 1 and 2 to account for Lincoln’s “brought forth” phrase and the rest of his birth metaphor, and excerpts from a couple of secondary sources.

Students considered open-ended questions about these documents, and now they’re beginning the co-ment.com exercise I introduced to you in my last post. I’m asking them to “comment on three parts of the Gettysburg Address.  Each comment should (1) quote the text it pertains to, including text not contiguous to the text highlighted by the comment, (2) describe a rhetorical device or strategy in the chosen text, (3) describe how that device functions in the chosen text’s context, and (4) describe how Lincoln used that device or strategy to advance one of his address’s purposes.”

I summarized our discussion of the address’s background in the following paragraphs so students could concentrate on Lincoln’s rhetorical devices and strategies.

Lincoln believed the young republic needed what he called in an 1838 speech a “political religion” to help keep order and enhance respect for law.  His concept of civil religion expanded thereafter to include reverence for the Founding Fathers and their work so that the ideas they cherished would be passed on to future generations (Jaffa, Crisis 226 – 232).

The Whigs and Democrats sparred for decades over the continuing role of the Declaration of Independence (Guelzo 192). Most Southern Democrats who considered the issue believed that the Constitution entirely superseded the Declaration. Southern theorists wanted the Constitution enforced with no distinction between any ideals it may share with the Declaration, on the one hand, and its political compromises found in its provisions protecting slavery, on the other (Jaffa, New Birth 87 – 88). Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, though, wanted to do away with the Constitution because it protected slavery (Guelzo 196 – 197). Lincoln disagreed with both Southern theorists and abolitionists. Instead, he chose to read the Constitution through the lens of the Declaration.  He believed that protecting the Constitution offered the best hope of someday extending the Declaration’s ideals (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) to more than just white males (197 – 198; Lincoln, Democracy 198; cf. Diggins 23).

Lincoln and most Whigs (and Republicans, who largely replaced the Whigs when that national party disintegrated in the late 1850’s) believed that the people of the United States became a single society at the signing of the Declaration of Independence and that the people formed our federal government with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Most secessionists, though, believed that the states, not the people, formed the U.S. Constitution and that the states, therefore, were implicitly free to secede from the resulting union (Jaffa, New Birth 269 – 271). (Secessionists argued that the states ratified the U.S. Constitution; Unionists countered by quoting the famous “We the people” phrase in the Constitution’s preamble and by pointing out that the ratification process was assigned not to the state legislatures but to a specially convoked convention in each state (Smith 451.)

Most Whigs agreed with John Locke and Thomas Jefferson that people have inalienable rights by virtue of their status as human beings (Lincoln, Lincoln-Douglas 63).  Democratic theorists, led by John C. Calhoun, believed that no inalienable rights existed because people were first and foremost members of societies and not individuals.  According to Calhoun, rights do not attach to individuals but only to members of particular societies or races that have evolved enough to earn and defend them (Jaffa, New Birth 282 – 283, 403 – 471).

Lincoln didn’t see any analogy between the colonists’ position in the Revolutionary War and the South’s in the Civil War. Lincoln found the secession counter-revolutionary (to use today’s language) since its leaders did not recognize what the Founders recognized as natural rights, applicable to all people at all times (277 – 282).  Further, Calhoun, who was the South’s most influential political theorist, recognized no right of revolution, as Locke and Jefferson had, since Calhoun believed that no rights attached to individuals qua individuals (414 – 416).

Lincoln believed that the South’s rebellion was a threat to democratic government because it contradicted the principle of majority rule and contained the seeds of anarchy.  How did he believe it did so?  The immediate cause of the South’s secession was Lincoln’s election.  If the losing side of a democratic election could split off from a political entity such as a nation, state, or county, Lincoln reasoned, then elections – the foundation of representative democracy – could always be undermined.  Representative democracy would “perish from the earth” (278 – 280; Lincoln, Democracy 206).

Although he hated slavery, Lincoln believed a U.S. president had no authority to harm that institution in the existing slave states (Lincoln, Lincoln-Douglas 63). He ran for president on a Republican platform that did not seek to end slavery but sought to keep slavery out of new American territories (Jaffa, New Birth 216 – 218).  Before the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, Lincoln believed that the North’s war aim was to preserve the Union with or without the abolition of slavery (Lincoln, Democracy 253 – 254). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves only in the slave states that had seceded from the Union, and Lincoln signed the proclamation only as an express exercise of his war powers as Commander-in-Chief (Goodwin 459 – 472; cf. Oates 319).

Works Cited

Diggins, John P. On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Print.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. Print.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Print.

Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.

Jaffa, Harry V. Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982. Print.

Lincoln, Abraham, Mario Matthew. Cuomo, and Harold Holzer. Lincoln on Democracy: His Own Words, with Essays by America’s Foremost Historians. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

Lincoln, Abraham, Stephen A. Douglas, and Harold Holzer. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: H. Holt &, 1996. Print.

2 thoughts on “A short background of Lincoln’s short speech

  1. I’m reading a biography of Andrew Jackson right now — H.W. Brands, which I almost gave up on after he devoted several paragraphs to characterizing the Scots-Irish from which Jackson sprang as a martial tribe rather like the Iroquois: hoping, I supposed to find some sort of moral equivalence that made the Creek and Seminole wars into something like friendly scuffles between brothers, rather than something like ethnic cleansing. But he wasn’t being quite that simple-minded, though he does have a sympathy & admiration for Jackson that I just can’t find an echo of in myself. I always look for biographers who are captivated by their subjects, though, even if I don’t care for them myself…

    Jackson, anyway, is truly remarkable in his narrowness, his inability to lift his gaze above the immediate horizon — the exact opposite of Lincoln. Brands ends his book looking forward to Lincoln — he sees Jackson as having paved the way for Lincoln, as having broken the power of the Washington insiders. Maybe. I find it hard to judge how real the Washington cabal was.

    This is all very tangential to your post, of course. But I wonder if you have any reflections on Jackson & Jacksonian Democracy. I guess I see Jackson as the prototype of the American racist, the sort of person who saw (white) Americans as a superior race. His patriotism was ardent. But Americans (in his view) weren’t better because they had democratic institutions: they had democratic institutions because they were better.

    Hmm, rambling a bit, I think. Too sleepy to be trusted with a keyboard… anyway, nice to see you posting again!

    1. Hi, Dale! It’s nice to be around here again, and great to hear from you.

      I wonder how long it had been since the Scotch-Irish stood out in a national election the way they did in 2008. In Jackson’s time they mistrusted the Whigs’ mix of business and religious activism, and now, nationally, they seem to fall into line with the Republicans, who, of course, are synonymous with business and religious activism. I guess the difference is that in the antebellum years slavery was seen as small business’s biggest enemy, while today the government is seen that way. And religious activism is mostly coming from the right these days instead of the left.

      I’ve never read a Jackson biography, but I’m of your mind about the biographer’s enthusiasm and writing carrying more weight than his subject. I’ve read around him a little. I read The Great Triumvirate years ago (Clay, Webster, and Calhoun), and I recently ordered Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress, which is supposed to be good. (I haven’t read anything directly about JQ Adams directly, either: none of his full bios jump out at me.)

      I like interesting theories such as Brands seems to advance so long as they don’t make me think he’s writing only to advance them or that he’s way off the historical mark without my knowing it. I rarely feel like I have enough knowledge about an historical subject to know where a theory fits into any historical debate about it.

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