Marginal: What “fourscore and seven years ago” means

On Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s Poetry. An American child’s first penetration into the Gettysburg Address is that “fourscore and seven” means “eighty-seven.” What else does it mean?

A year ago, Adam Goodheart’s book 1861: The Civil War Awakening helped me unpack the opening phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In marking our nation’s birth at the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed, Lincoln was claiming that we at that moment moved from a state of nature to a society. In other words, the people, not the states, created the Union.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Lincoln’s Lockean argument was a philosophical go for the Confederacy’s jugular. If the people, and not the several states, created the Union, then “state sovereignty” is a myth. (You can compare some of the Gettysburg Address with what Goodheart convinced me was an earlier elucidation of it – Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address to Congress – here.)

Over the break, I’ve been reading Pauline Maier’s book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788 and ran into a pertinent remark by one of my newfound heroes, South Carolina Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Speaking at South Carolina’s ratification convention in 1788, Pinckney revealed his understanding of how Locke’s state of nature applies to July 4, 1776:

. . . speakers argued that South Carolina’s weakness required union for its security. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney went so far as to describe the assertion that the Declaration of Independence had made each state “separately and individually independent” as “a species of political heresy.” The Declaration, which never mentioned the states by name, was meant, he argued, to impress on America the maxim that “our freedom and independence arose from our union, and that without it we could neither be free nor independent.” (249)

Pinckney’s observation constitutes more evidence that Lincoln wasn’t the first to associate the events in 1776’s Continental Congress with the people’s sovereignty. States could not secede from the Union, Lincoln reasoned, because they had no legal or moral existence outside of the Union. (N.B.: Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address establishes that he, like most Federalists and Whigs who raised the issue before him, acknowledged a state’s internal police powers.)

Indeed, Maier points out that, hard on the heels of South Carolina’s ratifying convention, Patrick Henry made his belief in state sovereignty the sine qua non of his objections to the proposed Constitution at Virginia’s ratifying convention: “No amendment, however, was likely to address [Henry’s] fundamental criticism of the Constitution: that its authority came from the people instead of the states” (266).

Henry had unpacked “We the People,” the first phrase of the proposed Constitution, and had seen, in its Lockean underpinnings, the end of what Pinckney had termed the “political heresy” of state sovereignty.

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.