“. . . a pulse of thought, To memory of Him . . .” (Walt Whitman)

058

Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809
“The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind” (Garry Wills).

The Declaration of Independence was only the “proposition” that all men are created equal, not a statement of the reality of the time.

The 13th Amendment making slavery illegal was passed in Congress January 31, 1865, under President Lincoln and ratified December 6, 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law by which Brown v. Board of Education and all of the cases declaring same-sex marriage un-Constitutional –and many other draconian laws–was ratified July 9, 1868. These two Amendments are Abraham Lincoln’s chief legacy, making real the possibility that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish.” Today is the day we should commemorate, not some arbitrary weekend designed for the moneyed interests in the United States to hold “President’s Day Sales.”

I quote Garry Wills at some length:

Lincoln did not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster had. He made history. He came not to 060present a theory but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, expressing emotional urgency in calm abstractions. He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not yet been broken—he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

[Lincoln] not only presented the Declaration of Independence in a new light, as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution … What had been mere theory. . . —that the nation preceded the states, in time and importance—now became a lived reality of the American tradition. The results of this were seen almost at once. Up to the Civil War “the United States” was invariably a plural noun: “The United States are a free country.” After Gettysburg it became a singular: “The United States is a free country.” This was a result of the whole mode of thinking that Lincoln expressed in his acts as well as his words, making union not a mystical hope but a constitutional reality. When, at the end of the address, he referred to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” he was not . . . just praising popular government . . . he was saying that America was a people accepting as its great assignment what was addressed in the Declaration. This people was “conceived” in 1776, was “brought forth” as an entity whose birth was datable (“four score and seven years” before) and placeable (“on this continent”), and was capable of receiving a “new birth of freedom.”

Thus Abraham Lincoln changed the way people thought about the Constitution …

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it … By accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.

(This passage is from The Atlantic, November 23, 2011. It is abbreviated from pages 145-147 of Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. I discovered this book four years ago when I was teaching my seminar based on the rhetoric of three Presidential speeches. “The Gettysburg Address,” Roosevelt’s “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Challenger” speech. The book is an extended discussion of Lincoln’s “rhetoric” at Gettysburg.)
gettysburgIn a rare image of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, he is shown hatless at the center of a crowd on the orators’ platform. (Library of Congress)

One of Walt Whitman’s five Lincoln poems:
“ABRAHAM LINCOLN (BORN FEB. 12, 1809).”
To-day from each and all, a breath of prayer, a
pulse of thought,
To memory of Him—to birth of Him.

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