The Gettysburg Address: Lincoln’s selective history

1.  This comment specifically pertains to the text “Now we are engaged” at the beginning of the Gettysburg Address’s second paragraph, and it generally pertains to the text of the first paragraph as well as to the text in the second paragraph’s first sentence.

2.  My comment addresses Lincoln’s rhetorical strategy of invoking history in a seemingly objective but ultimately selective fashion.  Lincoln’s address starts off as a chronology, and, indeed, through the first two paragraphs he puts the events in chronological order.  But he’s very selective about what events are included: the signing of the Declaration of Independence (“the Declaration”), the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the dedication of the Gettysburg Battlefield.  My comment particularly concerns the first two events: the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War.

3.  Lincoln obscures how selective he is by three means.  First, his address is very short, so he can’t be expected to put the country’s entire history in it.  Second, he ties the events together rhetorically.  He relates the Civil War to the Declaration’s signing by introducing the war in the address as the means of testing whether the nation conceived, birthed, and dedicated at the signing can last.  He achieves this by defining the war in terms of the Declaration.   The nation defended is “so conceived and so dedicated.” Third, he puts the Declaration and the Civil War in a life-cycle metaphor that extends over the entire address and parallels that life implicitly with Jesus’ life.  The Gospel of Luke, which Lincoln alludes to in the first paragraph, moves from Jesus’ birth and childhood to his three-year ministry while leaving out everything in between.  Similarly, Lincoln moves from our nation’s conception, birth, and dedication to its by-then three-year-old Civil War the same way.  “. . .  brought forth . . . conceived in liberty, and dedicated . . . Now we are engaged . . .” Nothing is said of the Constitution or of any event from 1776 to 1861.  If one questions Lincoln’s selective history, Lincoln seems to suggest, one might as well question Luke’s.

4.  By recounting our nation’s history through limiting it only the Declaration and the Civil War, Lincoln clarifies by simplifying.  He simplifies our history to emphasize what he sees as riding on the Civil War’s outcome – the existence of a nation, or any nation, founded on the Declaration’s principles.  The simplification also serves to reinforce Lincoln’s belief that the nation came into being at the Declaration’s signing.  This position was important for Lincoln for two reasons.  First, it gave the propositions in the Declaration – particularly that all men are created equal – outsize influence in reading the Constitution.  Second, it reinforced his belief that the people, not the states, created the United States.  If states created the United States, then it would boost the South’s case that individuals have no inherent rights but only those rights that a government recognizes as due to a segment of its population.