19 November '63—Wisdom Beyond Number
A nation conceived in liberty and dedicated
to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The Gettysburg Address
19 November 1863
|Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg|
Library of Congress
There is a line of numerical logic that argues there is no necessary value to a 10th or 100th or 150th anniversary. Each year is as good as the next.
But, we do invest numbers with extra-numerical value as we invest other seemingly valueless objects. To an important extent, financial economies rely on precisely this exchange. The absurdity of the proposition is recently visible in stories of Facebook’s desire to acquire Snapchat—for $3 billion. In what some technology types have seen as a response to the abiding need to be relevant, an Internet behemoth, sometimes described as the third (no doubt soon the second) largest country in the world, sought to buy a service whose content disappears by design almost as soon as it is created—for $3 billion, three times what Facebook paid for Instagram, an Internet photography service one might now view as a relative bastion of photographic permanence.
No wonder economists are so often reduced to incapacity when markets fail. ‘People did not behave as they were supposed to,’ is a favorite sigh, the means to replace a normative assumption with a normative plaint.
Today is the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Delivered 19 November 1863 to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery and commemorate one of our bloodiest battles, it is a fitting and proper contrast to the value of impermanence.
Among the beauties of perhaps the finest speech given, President Lincoln himself played down the speech he was giving with the speech he was giving.
but it can never forget what they did here."
President Lincoln could not have been more wrong. Of course, the Civil War—the Battle of Gettysburg—may not be forgotten. But, neither are President Lincoln’s words. As Allen Guelzo wrote recently, the “270 words…woven into 10 complicated sentences” were almost instantly made classic. In a sense, Lincoln’s words are more and better remembered than the deeds they mean to honor and the exhortation they delivered.
President Lincoln’s quiet on the words said at Gettysburg is not a mere self-deprecation. The sentence itself, like the President who uttered it, is if not preferring the deed to the word using the word as the a vehicle to the deed—a kind of speech-act, to borrow a legalism.
The violence of the Civil War, President Lincoln would say in his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, a month before his assassination, was a punishment visited on North and South alike for slavery—the nation’s founding and foundational sin. Say what you will about President Lincoln’s moral vision of slavery through his career. By the time of the Second Inaugural, he voiced a moral economy—an understanding of our moral failure, its cost, our national culpability and what to do now—few leaders, many facing threats far less dire, have.
For the Lincoln of the Second Inaugural, as with the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address, there are obvious, felt consequences visited on each side for their failing, for their complicity in slavery. Effecting, tolerating, prolonging, simply existing with slavery begat war. War begat death.
But, that is not all there is.
For Lincoln, there is in this colossal failure—the national sin of slavery—, just as there is in the carnage of war, the invitation to act differently. In the Second Inaugural, it is the call to “strive” “[w]ith malice toward none, with charity for all,” a surely exhausted exhortation,
"let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
In the Gettysburg Address, rather than feel only the impossibility to honor adequately the sacrifice at Gettysburg—and so, one should not help but think, the sacrifice of slavery—:
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
This is an argument to the Phoenix. In the destruction of slavery lies our salvation. Our failure, however deep, however serious, is not an invitation to paralysis. It is a call to revisit, re-envision, resolve our founding, a founding soon to be extended to those it excluded. That is where Lincoln begins:
"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
We acted at the end of the Civil War. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments are a Constitutional triumph of dedication to the great task before us. And, the glory of Reconstruction was met with old feeling and renewed failure of a political system on which the subtlety of Lincoln’s moral vision at Gettysburg and beyond was lost, resurrected only by reliance on, advocacy in not the political Branches of government but in the streets and the courts.
On Memorial Day 1963, in the 100th year of the Gettysburg Address, then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Gettysburg. There he gave a speech few noted or remembered. Where Lincoln had seen in the Civil War an ontological threat to a nation “so conceived” in liberty and equality and the invitation to renew that conception as the means to honor those who died at Gettysburg, Johnson saw a related truth.
"We are called to honor our own words of reverent prayer with resolution in the deeds we must perform to preserve peace and the hope of freedom."
Looking at the time and violence between Lincoln’s address and his own, Johnson saw not only the violence of war but the violence of our failure to act on Lincoln’s words and our distance from achieving justice. We were and we are to act affirmatively on the question of liberty and equality as they relate explicitly to race in America as the means to honor Lincoln’s words, ‘a nation so conceived’ and there is no time to waste. This is Johnson’s resolve to act.
"It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans—white and Negro together—must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now."
Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate."
This is a sentiment we sometimes hear from those who lived through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—the 50th anniversary of which we mark on Friday 22 November. In all its shock and horror, President Kennedy’s death was a call to act, to continue. The feelings of civic exhaustion, and ultimately distrust, we so often locate in looking back on the 60s arose later, after the death toll and deceit rose significantly.
We did act, again. Advocacy in the streets and in the courts. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, August 1963 dream. We enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among the finest achievements in using law and government not just to comprehend, redress and prevent the continuation of race discrimination but to live up to that nation so conceived.
But, as with Reconstruction, the success of our legal process is not instantaneous. Our vestiges and the escalating violence—here and in Vietnam—of the 1960s and President Johnson’s failure with Vietnam betrayed much, including his vision at Gettysburg and beyond.
The President who followed Johnson ultimately offered a different—patent and petty criminal—threat to the ‘nation so conceived.’ From the collapse of Presidents Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, we began a kind of failure of faith in government that even Lincoln may not have imagined. We have now long endured a corrosive and corroded vision of our capacity to govern—to use government to our shared benefit—that is based not only in historical failure but a politics of self-fulfilling deconstruction, obstruction and threats.
We have taken government apart. We have promised obstruction. We have threatened to—we have—shut down government. And then, we have complained government does not work.
It can be daunting—and even delusional—to extract order from all of this.
Whether one calls it hope or something else—“call it Italy, if it pleases you, Vicar.”— we can look back and see that we have both suffered greatly and endured—even prospered in some ways more than others. Or, as yet another President was to say in his First Inaugural Address, “[t]here is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
As Henry Louis Gates pointed out recently in discussing his latest and fine documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, from the 388,000 Africans who were dragged here not just for but “to grow” slavery arose 42 million African Americans. Obviously, we should be careful. This is no unfettered march of progress. But, at an important, living level a number like that says something extraordinary: It is a dedication to a nation so conceived and a wisdom beyond number.