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

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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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“. . . the States were NOT strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already. . . ” (Daniel Webster)

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

We hold these truths to be self evident. . .

Many semesters in teaching “discourse” at SMU, the opening subject matter of my classes was the Gettysburg Address. Everyone reading this knows, and nearly every student to whom I assigned it over the years knew who wrote it and vaguely (some more vaguely than others) why it was written.

The first lecture/discussion I led in those classes began with the question, “Can you finish this sentence in a way that most Americans would know? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that. . .’” Always there were 1 or 2 students in a class of 15 who could not, but everyone else chimed in, “all men are created equal.”

Then I would ask where the sentence came from, and we usually had a difference of opinion about equally divided in the class. Half would say the Constitution, and half would timidly say the Declaration of Independence. Often one lonely student would insist that the words came from the Bible.

The Constitution, of course, in its original form says something quite different. All men are not created equal. For starters, a black man who happened to be a slave, by the calculation of the Constitution, was only 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, section 2). And women were not part of the political process. The equality of the Constitution is for free white males.

So where did this “all men are created equal” nonsense come from—and, more importantly, why do about half of the students (not a scientific sampling, to be sure) at a major exclusive/expensive university think the words are in the Constitution?

That so many Americans assume the phrase about equality is in the Constitution derives from the thinking of men like Daniel Webster and others before him.

At least as far back as the meeting of the first Congress, in 1774, [the states] had been in some measure, and for some national purposes, united together. Before the Confederation of 1781, they had declared independence jointly, and had carried on the war jointly, both by sea and land; and this not as separate States, but as one people. When, therefore, they formed that Confederation . . . the States were not strangers to each other; there was a bond of union already subsisting between them; they were associated, united States; and the object of the Confederation was to make a stronger and better bond of union.
(Webster, Daniel. “The Constitution Not a Compact between Sovereign States.” U.S. Senate, February 16, 1833. Web. Gutenberg.org).

The purpose of the Continental Congress in 1787 was to make a “more perfect union,” not to create one. We simply assume—or we would not celebrate this holiday—that the Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the nation.

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

A nation so conceived and so dedicated

[The Declaration of Independence] was “a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled”—“by the delegates of the good people of the colonies. . .” It was not an act done by the State governments . . . It was emphatically the act of the whole people of the united colonies. . . From the moment of the Declaration of Independence . . . the united colonies must be considered as being a nation de facto, having a general government over it, created and acting by the general consent of the people of all the colonies. (Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Bk. II, Ch. 1, “The History of the Revolution,” pp 157-158).

Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, secured the concept of one nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and interpreted it for all time.

Abraham Lincoln, despite what some current “conservative” and “original intent” authors and film makers (Willmoore Kendall, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Dinesh D’Sousa, for example) want us to believe, did not redefine the Constitution. He simply restated so that all Americans understood the founding principle of the nation—the nation that already existed on July 4, 1776—that “all men are created equal.”

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 a way of correcting the Constitution without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier time so feckless . . . By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a [single] proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.
(Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Page 147.)

All children are not created equal.

All children are not created equal.

You, too, can shock an SMU student

Zach. A fine student, too.

Zach. A fine student, too.

Some morning when I won’t bother anyone, I’m going to take a picture of my clock when I wake up. 3:59 AM. Almost regular enough to set your watch by—except no one needs a watch with all of our electronic gadgets showing the exact time. How does that happen? How do my computer, my iPad, and my phone all know exactly the same time? One of the mysteries of the digital age that—if I ponder it longer than it’s taken me to type this sentence—can drive me to distraction.

My neurologist told me once that as I get older the symptoms of TLE would “soften.” That was his word. “Soften.” I have no clue. The only thing that has changed over the years is that actual seizures are almost a thing of the past. Your seizures couldn’t withstand the massive doses of Carbatrol I take, either. Oh, right—you don’t have seizures.

Maybe you do. Perhaps I’m the one with the normal-firing synapses and all of you are really living in constant seizures. That would explain a lot. Consider John Boehner. Perhaps his problem is the massive misfirings in his temporal lobe, misfirings he thinks are normal, and he’s glad I take Carbatrol to make my brain like his. Glad as long as I pay for it myself because his wife has hundreds of shares of Shire? Who knows? Makes as much sense as any other theory I know.

But the TLE symptom that has not gone away? I’m in pretty much full hypergraphic mode this morning. It used to scare me or piss me off which, of course, only made things worse. Now I simply write and write and write and write, and who knows what might dribble off the ends of my fingers.

On a morning when I thought of something to write about the day before (or even when I woke up in the night ready to write and took an Ambien instead) it’s not so much a problem. But on a day like today when I simply have to write and have nothing in mind, it’s a pain in the ass.

In fact, I did have an idea last night, but  I can’t write about my students and put it out here to zoom around in the Ethernet for all of eternity (apparently).

I can tell one little harmless student anecdote. This week is conference week—we suspend classes and I meet with students individually to try to help them make sense out of the essay they’re writing (the person who is writing this is going to help someone write something sensible? There you see the entire problem with our educational system). I have sixty twenty-minute conferences in one week. No wonder I’m in full swing this morning.

They’re writing about the rhetorical means of the Gettysburg Address. Seems a little like having a picnic lunch at the Tomb of the Unknown

The team.

The team.

Soldier at Arlington. The word “desecration” almost comes to mind. I’ve suggested to most of them that they should see the movie Lincoln. Really, it’s a great movie and passably accurate historically. One kid said when I asked if he’d seen it, “My grandfather told me it was boring.”

Well, now. Let’s unpack that sentence.

My grandfather. And just what kind of man is his grandfather? First his age. If the kid is 19 (he’s what we used to call a “Freshman”—now they have much fancier non-sexist names) he was born when his father was, say, 23 (married just out of college), that’s a total of 42. So if his father was born when his father was 23, that makes the grandfather 65. I’m older than his grandfather. Yikes! What am I doing in that office, anyway?

So his grandfather is either 1) not a movie buff, 2) an old man who likes “Terminator” movies, 3) not a history buff, 4) from Texas and has little use for Lincoln, or 5) a grandfather who understands the great chasm between generations.

Those possibilities pretty much unpack the rest of the statement. There’s no way to tell without meeting the grandfather. I don’t want to do that because he’s obviously an old straight white man, and they are a dime a dozen. He’s old. I’m in the prime of my career. Enough said. Except that I do have quite a few straight friends.

So I told the student the story of my being one degree of separation away from Abraham Lincoln. He was pretty amazed—not that I have a real personal reason to be so caught up in studying Lincoln, but that it was possible I could be that old. That’s not what he said, but I could, as they say, see the wheels turning.

Now we come to the end of this little exercise in slowing my mind down. Or not. Is there a point here? That study of rhetorical means? Anyone who knows the Gettysburg Address knows the metaphor of “conceived in liberty” and “new birth of freedom.” What lofty language. Our nation came to be in the fervor of liberty. So, I ask my classes, what is the metaphor, really? Blank stares.

Eminently shockable

Eminently shockable

“What’s the semen for the conception of America?”

That’s how you shock a bunch of college kids.

And probably you, too. Mr. Rarefied Lincoln couldn’t possibly have meant that.

And I say President Lincoln understood liberty in an earthy, primal way John Boehner and the Tea Party cannot even imagine.