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 Most Southern Democrats who considered the issue believed that the Constitution entirely superseded the Declaration.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.

Lincoln biographies

In a comment to “A Slow President,” maggie writes:

I would love to know what Lincoln biographies are you’re favorites. I haven’t read anything on Lincoln in a LONG time, but would love to read something fresh on him.

Maggie, I’ve been waiting a long, long time for someone to ask me that.  Some of this might not be “fresh,” since I’ve included one book almost as old as I am.  Well, let’s get started!

[book cover]A good reintroduction to Lincoln might be Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, which came out in 1977.  I’ve read it twice, mainly because it’s such a good story.  Oates’s Lincoln is a bit romanticized, kind of an updated Sandburg version.  If you can find the unabridged, recorded version, you’re in for a treat.

The least romanticized Lincoln may be David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, which was published in 1995.  It’s a fine biography with lots of good detail.  Lincoln plays the part of a political operator, which he was, but one gets the feeling that the Lincoln here is a bit the product of late-twentieth-century America.  Too much the callous C.E.O.

My favorite Lincoln biography is Allen C. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which was published in 1999.   Quoting from my own customer review on Amazon: “Like a typical biography, Redeemer President goes through its subject’s life.  But unlike most biographies, Redeemer President centers on the maturation of its subject’s thinking.  Guelzo shows how some of Lincoln’s most famous ideas, such as his reliance on ‘the proposition that all men are created equal,’ were part of Whig orthodoxy.  To trace Lincoln’s development takes nothing away from his genius, of course.”  The book examines the maturation of Lincoln’s religious thinking, too.

The most recent Lincoln blockbuster, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is a lot of fun.  It gives a brief biography of Lincoln and his three chief rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination up to that year’s party convention.  Then it follows the men through Lincoln’s presidency.  William Seward, the odds-on favorite for the party’s nomination in 1860, becomes Lincoln’s closest friend in his cabinet after Lincoln earns his respect.  Salmon P. Chaise is made out to be a vain opportunist that Lincoln must expend lots of energy managing during his first term.  The book focuses, as you might imagine, mostly on Lincoln’s cabinet. Published in 2005, Team of Rivals is really a great biography.

[book cover]My favorite Lincoln books are not biographies at all, but works of political philosophy by Harry V. Jaffa.  The first is Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, published in 1959.  Jaffa first makes Douglas’s case for “Popular Sovereignty,” the doctrine that allowed each territory to vote on whether it would be a free or slave state when it entered the union.  The second half of the book makes Lincoln’s case for natural rights, which Lincoln found embedded in the Declaration of Independence and which, when combined with the Constitution, required the eventual extermination of slavery.  The book focuses not only on the debates’ arguments but also on speeches and other historical events that flesh out those arguments.  If you read it, read its appendix first, which gives a great overview of the five years leading up to the debates, beginning with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Jaffa’s sequel, published in 2000, is A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War.  I set out here my Amazon customer review of the book:

A New Birth of Freedom is a book about Lincoln’s political philosophy, which Lincoln himself said (in so many words) emanated completely from the Declaration of Independence. The book is the sequel to Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, written over 40 years earlier. In Crisis, Jaffa takes up Douglas’ arguments in the famous 1858 debates for the first half of the book and then Lincoln’s in the second half. In New Birth, Jaffa backs up from the 1850’s to take in a sweep of history and thought from Classic Greece to the present.

If the material in New Birth is far more wide-ranging than in Crisis, the theme in New Birth is much more precise. The south lost the war, but the philosophy behind the justifications advanced by southern leaders such as Calhoun, Taney and Stephens is winning the battle of the minds.

Crisis of the House Divided is like being in philosophy class, but New Birth is like being over at the professor’s house later for drinks. Jaffa seems to lazily go over mountains of quotes, philosophers, and arguments, and he returns again and again to make the same points. But it’s never tedious. One finds Jaffa’s repetitions well worded and essential in understanding how far we’ve fallen philosophically. And eventually, toward the end, one gets a sense of the book’s structure.

Here’s the book’s thesis. Most of us admire Lincoln, but most of us wouldn’t agree with his political philosophy. Lincoln really did believe that our nation was dedicated to a proposition — a proposition that also brought forth natural rights. Mr. Jaffa demonstrates how 19th Century historicism has won out over the Founders’ concept of natural rights. Just as Nietzsche bitterly accounts for how Jewish thought won out after the Israelites were defeated, A New Birth of Freedom laments the ascendancy of the Confederacy’s historical approach in today’s political thinking.

Jaffa traces natural rights from Greek and Jewish thought through Locke, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln. Basically, Jaffa teaches that natural rights begin with the doctrine of the “state of nature.” In this state, a person has the right to life and liberty, and to property in order to defend his right to life and liberty. People form government in order to better protect these inalienable rights. In so doing, they yield the exercise of some of their rights, but not the rights themselves, which are inalienable. The people reserve the right of revolution, which is strongly asserted in the Declaration of Independence. Legitimate government can only exist through the consent of the governed, by a unanimous compact or contract. The measures of such a government by the majority’s will are deemed the will of the whole, so long as the minority’s rights are not violated by the measures.

All of this presupposes that all men are created equal. Jefferson found this self-evident, famously pointing out that we don’t find some people born with spurs on their shins and others born with saddles on their backs. Natural rights recognizes a distinction between God and mankind, on the one hand, and a distinction between mankind and beasts, on the other. The historical school finds all of this an accident of history. Picking up with Jaffa:

The historical school, which by the 1850s had largely displaced the natural rights school of the Founding, had also given rise to the romantic movement of the mid-nineteenth century. It too repudiated natural right, because it repudiated ‘rationalism,’ insisting as it did that ‘the heart had its reasons which reason did not know.’ Accordingly, Lincoln’s Socratic reasoning was rejected, because the very idea of justification by reasoning had come to be rejected. History, not reason, decided that some should be masters and others should be slaves. This movement of Western thought, from the natural rights school to the historical school, culminated in the Nazi and the Communist regimes of the twentieth century.

This was one of Jaffa’s few specific references to how the relativism of the historical school has affected modern history. I hope that, in his next book, Mr. Jaffa will give many more examples of how our retreat from the Founders’ conception of natural rights – and the clear distinction among God, people, and beasts underling that conception – has cost us.

Speaking of Amazon, to which I’ve linked each book title discussed, you pretty much have to ignore the aggregate stars the customer reviews give a Lincoln book.  Confederate sympathizers bash most modern books on Lincoln because these books don’t generally share their views of him, and by so doing they artificially lower these books’ star totals.

I seem incapable of writing short posts these days.  I hope you’re not sorry you asked, maggie.  And thanks for asking.



Posted September 28, 2008.