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Beyond the Words: The Meaning and Intent of the Gettysburg Address

While yes, the Gettysburg Address is easily the finest political speech in our nation's history, with its unrivaled prose and chiseled magnificence, it's also an unflinchingly hard-nosed, tough-talking American speech.
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It's a shame that, Drudge and other fire-eaters ginned up the ridiculous non-scandal scandal about the president omitting "under God" from his recitation of the Gettysburg Address. By now, it's clear that Ken Burns, who filmed the speech for a special video compilation of various popular figures reading the speech, gave the president the "Nicolay Version" of Lincoln's remarks, which didn't contain the words "under God."

Rather than besmirching the 150th anniversary of the address by shoehorning it into a too-obvious nod to the "Obama Is A Secret Muslim" conspiracy theory, followed by the usual ensuing political poop-flinging, the focus should've been squarely on the meaning and intent of the speech itself. November 19, 2013 was the perfect occasion for such a discussion since, in these intervening 150 years, President Lincoln's thoughts about the war and the nation's future have become lost in the grandeur of the words themselves.

Indeed, whenever we read the speech, we're never really reading it, we're almost always merely performing it -- patriotic music playing softly in the background, while occasionally pausing on well-recognized examples of Lincoln's erudition and statuesque turns-of-phrase including and especially "last full measure of devotion," "our poor power to add or detract" or, of course, "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Lincoln lived in a linguistic era that seems almost foreign to us now, sadly enough. Many more Americans in Lincoln's time were, to varying degrees, trained in classics, ancient Greek, Latin; they were versed in one or more foreign languages, philosophy, classical and contemporaneous literature, theology and rhetoric. Lincoln's self-taught background and big brain gave him the literary tools to be fully eloquent but with an economy of language -- to say historically momentous things using just 269 words.


Dead at Gettyburg. (Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress)

The Gettysburg Address was undoubtedly a political speech. That's not a criticism at all, but a statement of fact. In addition to conducting and, in many cases, micromanaging the war itself, Lincoln regularly fought his own political battles against anti-war zealots, and so he seized the opportunity presented by the federal victory at Gettysburg in July, along with the dedication of the national cemetery the following November, to both fuel the war effort and to remind anyone who was doubtful about continuing to prosecute the war what specifically was at stake.

Lincoln's central point was that while it's impossible to consecrate the sacred ground at both the new cemetery and the battlefield that surrounded it more than had already been achieved by those killed in action there, it was indeed eminently possible to honor those dead by continuing to pursue the war and ultimately winning it in their memory -- "to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

Furthermore, Lincoln was cautioning the anti-war movement, the Copperheads (Peace Democrats) and even some fellow Republicans, that by ending the war prematurely, they'd be dishonoring the men who "gave the last full measure of devotion," their lives, to the northern cause. And if those anti-war factions were to have won the political fight in the coming election year, the union of the states would've failed, slavery would've remained intact in the South and the experiment of the United States would've been viewed worldwide as a dud, amounting to no more than the Balkanization of the North American continent. In other words, if the war had ended prematurely with either a Confederate victory or some sort of peace agreement leaving the Confederacy intact, the thousands of U.S. soldiers who had died, and especially those buried at Gettysburg, will have died for nothing. The wholesale slaughter would've been rendered meaningless.

By winning the war, however, the notion that "all men are created equal" would be vindicated. But more than that, it would finally, and for the first time, be realized in full. And it'd be realized within the framework of a preserved American union.

As if that wasn't enough, it was Lincoln's sense of history that gave him the foresight to know that if an American-style republic and representative democracy failed in the form outlined by the framers within the founding documents, it would make it a less enviable system of government elsewhere, thus depriving millions more of the chance to exist in a free society.

It's difficult to imagine the burden this one man had to endure considering the incredibly high stakes of the war -- stakes that were heightened with those 269 words to include the blood of hundreds of thousands Americans maimed or killed in pursuit of "a new birth of freedom." Those stakes didn't allow for compromise or acquiescence. In fact, several months later, Lincoln made arguably his finest decision as a wartime commander-in-chief. On March 1, 1864, he promoted U.S. Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General and supreme commander of the Army.

Especially in contrast to the cavalcade of painfully incompetent generals who preceded him, Grant was perhaps the military embodiment of the Gettysburg Address ideal: to "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain" by taking the fight to the enemy and to never turn back until unequivocal victory had been achieved. Beginning in early May, five months after the Gettyburg Address, Grant crossed the Rapidan River in Northern Virginia and never turned back until he reached Wilmer McLean's parlor at Appomattox Courthouse and victory, more than a year later.

While yes, the Gettysburg Address is easily the finest political speech in our nation's history, with its unrivaled prose and chiseled magnificence, it's also an unflinchingly hard-nosed, tough-talking American speech. In the name of the very highest ideals, freedom and union, it was a direct call to action for the sake of achieving victory in face of immeasurable and unprecedented bloodshed.