Friday, November 15, 2013

Words that Remade America

November 19, 1863. That was the date of the Gettysburg Address, the speech delivered by President Lincoln during the Civil War.
That remarkable speech was given at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, several months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the bloody Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863.

There were nearly 8,000 battle deaths during those three days of fighting in southern Pennsylvania, about 60% of them being Confederate soldiers led by General Robert E. Lee.
More than 27,000 combatants were wounded, with more than half being Union soldiers, commanded by General George G. Meade. What a horrible time in the history of this country!
At the end of the battle, those 8,000 human bodies were strewn across the ground around Gettysburg, a town of only 2,500 inhabitants. Because of the stinking decay of those bodies, most were just covered over with a thin cover of dirt—many to partly resurface later.
Something had to be done. That was the reason for making the National Cemetery and dedicating it on that Nov. 19 afternoon 150 years ago next Monday.
President Lincoln’s speech, which was fewer than 280 words long (less than half the length of this article), has been called “the words that remade America” in the subtitle of Garry Wills’s 1992 book “Lincoln at Gettysburg.”
As has often been pointed out, Lincoln’s main motive in the Civil War was not the freeing of the slaves, although he later embraced that purpose also. His main desire was to preserve the Union, forming a true union of all the people of all 35 states that existed at that time, including the 11 that seceded in 1861.
According to Wills, until the Civil war, “the United States” was invariably a plural noun, as in “the United States are a free government.” After Gettysburg, it became singular, as in “the United States is a free government” (p. 145).
Because of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, people in this country came to understand both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in a new way. That is why Wills avers that the Lincoln’s short speech “remade America.”
What significance does the Gettysburg Address have for us in the U.S. today? For starters, the country needs to recognize anew the importance of the union and of all the people within the country.
Now, as in 1861 when the Civil War began, there are great economic tensions and polarity within the country. Just last year more than 125,000 Texans signed a petition saying they wanted to secede from the Union!
Historian Arthur Herman has written about the possibility of a second civil war in this country, beginning perhaps in 2014. In July 2012, Herman (b. 1956) wrote an article about this coming civil war between “the Makers” and “the Takers.” In other words, it would be class (economic) warfare.
Then, in January of this year, published a second article by Herman titled, “We’re now one step closer to America’s coming civil war.”
Let’s hope Herman is wrong and join together in the resolve to protect the basic human rights, dignity and equality of all people in this nation. Let us do so in order that, in Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
To remake America now, we all need to heed Lincoln’s appeal at the close of his Second Inaugural Address as he called on the nation to act “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”


  1. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard wrote to say,

    "I do not believe that we are headed for a civil war, although some 'militia' may try to set up an independent republic somewhere. I believe much of the secessionist talk is motivated by racism; when Obama's term ends, things may settle down."

    1. Eric, I certainly hope things will settle down. But while I agree that there is a considerable amount of racism still abroad in the country, I still see the most disturbing divide between the wealthy and middle class over against the poor in the country. The Tea Party emphasis on no new taxes and the cutting of SNAP and other benefits for the poor is a part of that tension, which could escalate toward even more bitter feelings on both sides of the economic divide, I'm afraid.

    2. To consider the prospect of a second American civil war, one might take a look at a second anniversary coming up, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. See this link for recent article on that subject:

      Talk is cheap, and the Fox speculators may well not really expect a civil war, yet, looking at how the hate-filled atmosphere of 1963's Dallas helped set the stage for the assassination, future generations may look back at Fox News and wonder how much it might have helped trigger such a war. Indeed, as I read how one of the Dallas hate leaders, Reverend Criswell, hated Kennedy for his support of integration, I realized how direct a connection there is between the hate of 1963's Dallas and today's far right wing. There is a painfully straight line from Reverend Criswell through the Southern Baptist Convention to today's Republican Party.

      It has been said that slavery is America's original sin. Perhaps it was the first flowering of that original sin. However, slavery has been largely absent from America for 150 years. Not so, the original sin. Hate and arrogance are marching on. Perhaps that recent Lincoln vampire movie was on to something!

    3. Thanks, Craig, for again posting perceptive comments.

      My good friend Luther Copeland, who passed away in 2011, wrote a book titled "The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History: The Taint of an Original Sin" (rev. ed., 2002). It has been several years since I read it, but I think it is certainly in agreement with what you wrote.

  2. Leroy,

    I heard on NPR yesterday that a newspaper in Pennsylvania is apologizing for its review of Lincoln's speech. Then it said it was silly. They regretted being so short sighted. Makes you wonder if the then editor of that paper would agree!

    Thanks for another good post.

    1. 150 Years ago this is what the Harrisburg's Patriot & Union newspaper - the Patriot-News's Civil War ancestor - said about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
      "We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of."

    2. Yesterday, CNN reported,

      "In what might be one of the oldest corrections in the history of journalism, the editorial board of a Pennsylvania newspaper has retracted its predecessor's famous panning of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as 'silly remarks.'"

  3. Your comments touched on a wide diversity of subjects each needing serious consideration. Those closing comments on an economic civil war brought to mind the parable of Jesus, The Good Samaritan. It expresses three economic viewpoints: the thieves - what is yours is mine and I will take it; the priest and Levite - what is mine is mine and I will keep it; and the Samaritan - what is mine is yours and you can have it.

    I would say that the priest and Levite were no less thieves than the original robbers because they saw a need and refused to help. At the same time we praise the Samaritan because he willingly gave to aid another rather than being forced to do so. Tea Party member or card-carrying communist, Christ calls us to help the oppressed, economically or otherwise, out of a grateful heart, not because some human institution demanded it. We perhaps need a little revolution, but it needs to have a primary focus on the individual heart. That would fulfill Lincoln's hope of a nation of, by, and for the people, but it still remains a dream (MLK, Jr)