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.

Small picture. Big frame.

There’s something about gathering around a short text. I do my best thinking, even my best writing, in book margins.  Small picture, big frame.  My ideal page has wide margins on all sides for comments, though with footnotes so the writer or the editor(s) can get into the act, too.

I love gathering around a text.  I’ve loved it at college seminars, at church, at school, in book groups, at meals, with Victoria mornings before we go. The text as a table with room around it for many chairs.

I love I’ve spent the day assessing my students’ comments there on the Gettysburg Address.  It made me comment more.  I find good texts — poems, portions of Scripture, portions of novels, portions of anything — inexhaustible.  I organize my thoughts around them.  I’ll walk weeks without a light with them.  I’ll live a hard day deep down around a Bible verse or a snatch of poetry, a table set before me where mine enemy can pull up a chair, too, while laying down his arms.

I’ve always wanted others to see what I see in a text.  And I want to see what they see, too.

What does writing feel like?

Although every writer dreams of getting it right on the first pass, very few succeed.  Writing is craft and, like all craft, proceeds by stages: conception, material selection, rough shaping, detailed shaping, sanding and finishing.  (That’s for writing nonfiction, which feels like woodworking to me.  Writing fiction is more like throwing clay, and writing poetry more like watchmaking.)

— Richard Rhodes, from “Beware of that Voice in Your Head” in today’s Wall Street Journal.

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.

The right to call someplace home

A federal trial court judge’s clerk usually handles the prisoner petitions.  When I clerked, I would read the petitions, research them, and write an order for my judge to sign deciding the case.  Most of the research was in constitutional law because prison administrators have a lot of leeway in running their prisons with only their prisoners’ constitutional rights circumscribing their policies.

One day my judge refused to sign one of my drafts.  The inmate in question had petitioned the court for damages after debris had allegedly hit him in the head and injured him on a work site.  The prison administration was at fault, he said, because it hadn’t issued him a hard hat.  My order would have permitted the case to proceed to a hearing.

My judge smiled. “There’s no constitutional right to a hard hat,” he said.

One of my students earlier this month came up with a new inalienable right.  When I asked the class what rights he would add to (or specifically enumerate in) the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, he included “the right to call someplace home.”

Consider the virtues of a right to call someplace home.  It’s vague, like due process or equal protection.  Everyone can pay it lip service.  A faction could read it as requiring the government to find housing for everyone.  Another faction could hold “English only” legislation unconstitutional since it infringes on a penumbral right to speak only the language of an immigrant’s homeland.  Others could weaken it, or perhaps use it in a way my student may not have intended, by discovering in it only the right to call the United States home, first holding that the government decides what “someplace” is for everyone.  Some may find the right only aspirational: we are a rather nomadic people as well as a melting pot, and perhaps we feel the need for place more acutely for our relative rootlessness.  And some may find it merely tautological.  After all, calling someplace home sounds quintessentially unalienable.

Anyway, it’s a step up from a constitutional amendment delineating the right to a hard hat.