Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s poetry

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam GoodheartLincoln didn’t scribble the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope in a train or on a napkin at a diner on the way to Gettysburg, but “he wrote it fairly quickly.” Historian Adam Goodheart’s assessment is in line with other accounts I’ve read, but in his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, he explains Lincoln’s quick work in a way that finally makes sense to me. He says that Lincoln did most of the thinking necessary for the famous 1863 address a couple of years earlier, when he was drafting his July 4, 1861 message to Congress justifying the Union war effort (360).

Lincoln worked hard then. He started writing the address over two months before its delivery, and by mid-June his secretary John Nicolay recorded that Lincoln was “engaged almost constantly in writing the message.” Goodheart presents evidence that “many Americans shook their heads in disbelief at how much time the president was spending on his message” (356). But the long work in 1861 made for short work in 1863:

Lincoln had already done the hard work of the Gettysburg Address, the heavy intellectual lifting, in 1861. The two intervening years would go to pare away the nonessentials, to sculpt 6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry. (361)

Goodheart’s insight rings true from what I know of writing. Writers write to understand what their preoccupations make of experience. Essentially, then, writers rewrite. A writer’s new works are, more than most anything, new attempts to frame or answer old, nagging questions.

So I reread Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 message in light of the Gettysburg Address. I used to mark up and comment on the latter address with portions of the former one. The result is a pdf file you can view and download here: GettysburgAddressJuly41861Message.  (A link to the text of the entire 1861 message is here.)

1861 is one of the most engaging books I’ve read that recounts a year of American history. It weaves the stories of disparate Americans as the country transitioned from a long, uneasy peace to civil war.

We the deputies

The notion of popular sovereignty is old, older than the modern vote. When the Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800 CE, for instance, he said that he “merely declared and exercised the people’s will.”1 But just as popular sovereignty was beginning to “imply the enfranchisement of the people,”2 the seceding Southern states ratified a constitution that opened with “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent states.”3 Lincoln pointed to this language in his July 4, 1961 address to Congress, his unofficial declaration of war against the seceding states: “Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view, the rights of men, and the authority of the people?”4

Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne
Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne

It’s a fair question. If European rulers were claiming the people’s mandate before the modern vote existed, why was it so hard for the South to mimic the famous opening to the United States Constitution, “We, the people”?

The division between state sovereignty and popular sovereignty was evident even while our Constitution was being debated and ratified in the late 1780’s. At Virginia’s ratification convention, Patrick Henry argued that the proposed constitution’s “We, the people” opening was error because sovereignty rested in the states, not the people. In her book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788, Pauline Maier summarizes part of Henry’s argument: “The people in their collective capacity were not the proper agents for entering leagues, alliances, or confederations; that was the work of ‘states and sovereign powers.’” Henry didn’t believe that the “people in their collective capacity” were sovereign.5

Henry’s argument against people’s sovereignty may have been associated with another argument he advanced, this one outside of the Richmond convention, against the proposed constitution: “They’ll free your niggers.”6 (Like John Randolph of Roanoke and John Calhoun after him, the author of Virginia’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech believed in liberty without equality.7) As Lincoln pointed out, the doctrine of state sovereignty was inimical to the rights of men.

Lincoln understood that the state sovereignty claim, cited by Henry, was the philosophical basis of the South’s secession. In his July 4, 1861 address to Congress, Lincoln described how, from an historical perspective, the states didn’t make the Union; instead, the Union made the thirteen colonies into states. Consequently, the states have no power – even no political existence – outside of that Union. The Constitution merely reserves to the states what is inherently local: “whatever concerns only the State, should be left exclusively, to the State” (emphasis original). While Lincoln accepted this limited definition of states’ rights, he demolished, in a lawyerlike manner, the notion of “state sovereignty.”8

Political scientist Harry V. Jaffa, founder of the conservative Claremont Institute, points out that the Revolutionary colonial assemblies declared union with one another and independence from Great Britain at the same time, and most of those declarations proclaimed the rights of man in language similar to the Declaration of Independence’s statement of inalienable rights. Their instructions to their delegates to the Continental Congress all contained but a single qualification: the new states would reserve police powers. “Thus [the new states] could, euphemistically, be called sovereign, but only in this limited sense,” Jaffa argues. He points out that each of the nine prohibitions on the states in the Constitution’s first article – “for example, the denial of the right to coin money – is a denial of a power regarded as an attribute of sovereignty by international law.” 9 This limited, “police power” notion of states’ rights grew to full sovereignty precisely when states’ rights were no longer associated with natural rights. Jaffa again: “The state rights that allegedly justified the ordinances of secession of 1860 – 61, and which served as the foundation of the Confederacy, had severed the connection with natural rights that had informed the generation of the Revolution.” 10

The Constitution’s ratification and the North’s successful prosecution of the Civil War were victories for popular sovereignty and aided the gradual movement to universal suffrage. They also established the falsity of today’s claims for state sovereignty and to a right of secession. States have “rights” to the extent of their police powers, but they are not, nor have they ever been, sovereign.11

  1. Lippmann, Walter. The Public Philosophy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955. Print. Pages 37-38.
  2. Id. at 37.
  3. 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. Page 220.
  4. Id. at 223.
  5. Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. Page 264.
  6. Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Holt, 1996. Print. Page 119.
  7. See my post “Liberty and inequality.”
  8. Lincoln, supra, at 220 – 221.
  9. Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print. Pages 373 – 374.
  10. Id. at 251.
  11. Texas is an exception, of course: it was once a sovereign state. But as Lincoln pointed out in his July 4, 1861 address, “even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union; by which act, she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States . . . to be, for her, the supreme law of the land.” Lincoln, supra, at 220.

Good reads on natural law, Lockean liberalism, & equality

Walter Lippmann stampA few people recently asked me for some good reads to start them into natural law, Lockean liberalism, and the equality clause. I oblige them here.

The Teaching Company’s Great Courses includes a thoughtful overview on the history and development of natural law theory. Joseph Koterski’s “Natural Law and Human Nature” course comes with a good “course guidebook” that has lots of suggestions for more reading.

One of those suggestions is Paul E. Sigmund’s book Natural Law in Political Thought. Here is the most approachable scholarly book I’ve read on the subject. Like Koterski’s course, Sigmund’s book traces natural law’s development over the centuries.

Sigmund’s book, in turn, mentions Walter Lippmann’s book The Public Philosophy. I’m reading it now. Unlike Koterski and Sigmund, Lippmann was not a scholar but (as Wikipedia puts it) a public intellectual and an amateur philosopher. He wrote The Public Philosophy in 1955, near the end of his reign as probably the twentieth century’s most influential American columnist. Lippmann’s book isn’t a history book; instead, it advocates that America readopt natural law as its public philosophy.

Ruth W. Grant
Ruth W. Grant

Another well-argued piece is political science professor Harry V. Jaffa’s 1987 law review article “What Were the ‘Original Intentions’ of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States?” Jaffa takes issue with his fellow conservatives who reject natural law in favor of strict constructionism. (If you click the above link to that article, be prepared to be patient. It takes a while to load.) Jaffa’s shorter article along those same lines is “The False Prophets of American Conservatism.” If you end up liking Jaffa and want to challenge yourself, treat yourself to what I consider to be the past few decades’ greatest work of American political science, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, published in 2000. In it, Jaffa develops the founders’ and Lincoln’s political philosophy and establishes the significance of the equality clause and the natural-law hierarchy it reinforces among God, mankind, and nature. Very slow, difficult, but rewarding reading.  (You can read my customer review of the book here.)

Three good primary sources would be Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s writings. Political Writings of John Locke has a long (115 pages) and excellent introduction by David Wootton. The introduction puts Locke’s works in the context of his life and times and explains his works’ appeal to the American revolutionary generation. The Signet Classic version of the Federalist Papers has a much shorter but equally thoughtful introduction, this one by Charles R. Kesler. Written in 1999, the introduction presciently demonstrates how pertinent the Federalist Papers are to us today: “The American Union is threatening to split up into separate confederacies of states, Publius argues, and each state is itself teetering on the brink of tyranny due to the danger of majority faction.” As for Lincoln’s writings, I use Lincoln on Democracy, edited by Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, and the Holzer-edited version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. My favorite intellectual biography of Lincoln is the very approachable Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo.

Alexander Rosenthal
Alexander Rosenthal

Two other books I’ve read should not be missed: Alexander S. Rosenthal’s Crown Under Law: Richard Hooker, John Locke, and the Ascent of Modern Constitutionalism and Ruth W. Grant’s John Locke’s Liberalism. The links associated with those titles lead to my extensive reviews of the titles.

Three good steps for finding free or cheap books: (1) showroom Amazon (many would say it’s only fair) using its customer reviews and its “Look Inside” feature where available, or Google Books, to see what you want, (2) look for free e-book downloads on’s texts sectionOpen Library, or Amazon’s Kindle store and the like (usually books out of copyright) (you can borrow many e-books at these sites, too), and, barring that, (3) shop for used hard-copy books, starting at bookfinder.comAnd three guidelines for buying used books: (1) hardbacks are often way cheaper than paperbacks, (2) older editions are often way cheaper than newer editions, and (3) (contrary to all reason) well-marked books are often way cheaper than “clean” books.

I can’t compile such a digest of political science books as this without acknowledging the work that got me interested in natural law, Lockean liberalism, and the equality clause more than a quarter-century ago: Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I trembled, reading it the first time.

American unexceptionalism

What do you think of the notion that America has a world mission? Does it sound too religious, too much like the language of crusade? Mr. Romney, a former missionary, speaks of America’s world mission with an almost religious zeal. Here’s an account of one of Mr. Romney’s recent speeches:

Addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made it clear he is “an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country.”

“I am not ashamed of American power,” he said. “I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair.” . . .

Romney told the VFW he . . . would be “guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.”

Mr. Obama also speaks of America in superlative terms in almost every stump speech: we have the world’s best workers, entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, colleges, and universities. We still offer the American Dream to people willing to move here and to work hard, he says.

Is our world mission linked to our military power, as Mr. Romney suggests, or to our economic opportunity, as Mr. Obama suggests? Whether our mission is to spread liberty beyond our boarders or to offer economic opportunity to those willing to relocate inside them, the candidates agree that we have a mission. Do we?

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Paul Ryan & the missing commandment

Yesterday’s devotional puts it another way. Why is Paul Ryan’s idea of the idea America was founded on inadequate? During his first speech as the presumptive Republican nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan stated that America was founded on an idea:

But America is more than just a place…it’s an idea.  It’s the only country founded on an idea.  Our rights come from nature and God, not government.

The inadequacy is reflected in the August 15 entry in Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey:

The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are found in solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone.

Nouwen’s solitude and Locke’s state of nature are founded on the same idea: we are ourselves before God prior to becoming someone else’s someone — someone’s nephew, someone’s consumer, someone’s constituency, someone’s enemy, someone’s lifeline. Because the idea of unalienable rights comes from this existential notion, Ryan is on firm ground asserting that our rights come from God and not government.

But Locke’s state of nature is a necessary but not sufficient philosophical foundation for America. Nouwen’s entry continues:

Poverty is where we experience our own and other people’s weaknesses, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God’s love.

Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.

If solitude is akin to Locke’s state of nature, then poverty is akin to Jefferson and Lincoln’s notion that all men are created equal. The work of poverty, in whatever form it takes, brings us into solidarity with our neighbors. If we are not weak, we cannot relate to the weakness of others, and community is not possible.

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Paul Ryan’s improvement on Abraham Lincoln

During his first speech as the presumptive Republican nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan stated that America was founded on an idea:

But America is more than just a place…it’s an idea.  It’s the only country founded on an idea.  Our rights come from nature and God, not government.

Ryan here states the essence of natural law’s distinction with positive law. (“Positive” law is law posited by government.) Natural law has been most helpful when a government has sought to circumscribe a people’s rights. Under John Locke’s version of natural law, if a ruler denies his people’s inalienable rights and refuses his people’s appeals, the people may “appeal to heaven” — i.e., recognize the state of war that exists between the ruler and his people. We did that in 1776.

Ryan is correct when he states that our rights come from natural law. He and others who have recently made this assertion imply, though, that the government cannot create rights, such as a “right” to health insurance despite preexisting conditions. This limited notion of rights makes a mockery of natural law. Many positive laws create rights — rights of action (i.e., the right to access courts to enforce legislative remedies), if nothing else. Locke and the Founders never said or implied that natural law precludes positive law. Positive law must not be inconsistent with natural law, to be sure, but our early Supreme Court cases, some of which considered positive law in light of natural law, rarely found them to be in conflict.

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On Why I’m a Whig. This quote from Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics cracked me up today:

. . . What it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action[?] Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.

I’m no great thinker — I don’t have a philosophical intelligence or frame of mind — but I can relate to Aristotle’s rueful (well, rueful if Aristotle were an American politician) “the many do not give the same account as the wise.”

I’m not up for Aristotle’s class-structured government, and Aristotle’s teleological understanding of happiness is a tough sell in a democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But I agree with his teleological understanding of happiness, and I agree that, usually, “the many do not give the same account as the wise.”

I think Lincoln agreed with both, too. In fact, I think he lived out this paradox. A democracy is blessed if its leaders, during a critical time such as our Civil War, demonstrate wisdom consistent with a high notion of what Jefferson called “societal happiness.” Lincoln is the last United States president, I think, who was critical of his nation’s spiritual condition and got away with it, at least in the eyes of history. (See his Peoria speech and his Second Inaugural.)

The quote, and some further thoughts about it, added a new #15 to the (now) 26 reasons why I’m a Whig.

The one-sided fight for the Founders

Obama has conceded America’s past to his opponents. It may cost him the election.

1. Who built that business?

Here’s the latest example of Obama’s concession.

As political junkies are aware (and attack ads will soon make the rest of America aware), President Obama recently said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Former Governor Romney pounced on Obama’s statement: “This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is something that is so foreign to us that we can’t understand it.”

Obama, of course, was not attacking success but supporting it. He was explaining one aspect of how entrepreneurs become successful – the necessary partnership businesses have with society and government. Obama feels the need to explain it because he wants to make the bigger point that Romney’s go-it-alone policies will hurt entrepreneurs. And, strictly speaking, Obama was referring to roads and bridges, not businesses. Here’s the quote in context:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

The pundits say that Obama harmed himself by stating his case in such a way that a sentence could be taken out of context and easily misconstrued, and I suppose they’re right.  One of the Washington Post’s political pundits, Aaron Blake, points out that Obama’s remark feeds into the perception of him as a “big-government liberal.”

Obama frequently tries to express an individual’s relationship to society and government. But he is largely wasting his breath. Why? Because he and most other progressive politicians I know have not laid the philosophical groundwork for it.

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The Gettysburg Address: four dedications

1.  This comment pertains to the words “dedicate” and “dedicated” used throughout the address: fathers dedicating a nation in paragraph one, the speaker and audience dedicating a battlefield in paragraph two, soldiers dedicating their lives in battle, and the speaker and audience dedicating themselves to the unfinished work.

2.  Lincoln uses the rhetorical occasion of a battlefield dedication to serve as a metaphor that gets across and unites his version of history and his view of the Union’s war aims.  The occasion of Lincoln’s address is the dedication of the Gettysburg Battlefield.  The concept of dedication comes up in three other contexts, though: the dedication of the nation, the dedication of soldiers, and the dedication of the audience.

3.  Lincoln’s audience is conditioned by the speech’s occasion to hear the word “dedication,” but Lincoln first uses it metaphorically and out of the speech’s immediate context.  In his first sentence, Lincoln alludes to the King James Version of Luke 1 and 2 when he uses the terms “conceived” and “brought forth” as well as the idea of dedicating children.  Our nation was dedicated to a proposition found in its inaugural document, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln implies, just as Jesus was dedicated at the temple to God shortly after his birth.  This attributes to the nation and to the Declaration a kind of holiness – a kind of God-given purpose – beyond the form of dedication that the audience had come to participate in.

The second use of “dedication” is its use in dedicating the battlefield.  It is in the context of the “Now” introduced by the second paragraph.  It juxtaposes the present occasion with the dedication he and the audience are participating in.  The comparison of almost mystical past in which fathers gave birth and dedicated a nation with the mundane, after-the-fact present, tends to make us see the fathers’ actions as greater than the audience’s is.  “They dedicated a nation, after all, and we are only dedicating a battlefield,” the audience may be led to think.

But Lincoln both reassures the audience and points it in a new direction.  “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this,” Lincoln assures his audience.  Now that the audience is assured in their relation with the past, Lincoln points it in a new direction – the future.  After closing the second paragraph with assurance, he begins the third with “But.”  The soldiers have already dedicated field with their lives, and we have but “poor power to add or detract” to that act or from it, respectively.  We cannot dedicate the field, as we had come to do.  We can only take the soldiers’ example and dedicate ourselves to the same purpose they dedicated themselves to the cause that this nation “shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln uses the occasion of the battlefield’s dedication effectively to move his audience from the mystical, grand past of our nation’s inception to the present occasion, and then to the audience’s future work.

4.  One of Lincoln’s rhetorical purposes is to increase his audience’s devotion to the Founding Fathers and what he believed they accomplished through the Declaration of Independence.  He does this by suggesting that they dedicated our nation to a proposition – an unproven and arguably axiomatic idea – that all men are created equal.  When the audience in paragraph two is made to feel how small the immediate dedication of a battlefield is compared to the dedication of a nation, the audience also feels how significant and exceptional the Declaration’s equality clause is.

Lincoln’s peroration involves the audience in the Founders’ work, however.  By dedicating themselves to the soldiers’ cause, the audience becomes co-laborers with the Founders.  While the Founders gave birth and dedicated the nation, the audience dedicates itself to preserving the nation so dedicated.

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.