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Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” a Cynical View

Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” a Cynical View

Copyright©2018 by Wilson J. Moses

January 25, 2018

Abraham Lincoln knew that the United States of America was not a “nation conceived in liberty,” nor was it “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Like Chief Justice Roger Taney, famous for his lengthy obiter dictum in Dred Scott v. Sandford, Lincoln had carefully read the Declaration of Independence, and he new that its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave holder, who held strong positions on black inferiority and the inferiority of women. Jefferson also believed in a “natural aristocracy” among whites. In famous lines from his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson implied that black people should be seen as the link between apes and humans and referred to poor whites as “rubbish.” In a letter to Samuel Kercheval 5 September, 1816, Jefferson wrote that women “to prevent depravation of morals, and ambiguity of issue, could not mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men.”

But Lincoln’s purpose at Gettysburg was not to be politically or historically accurate; it was to reshape the American narrative. His purpose was to fabricate a history that would present the Union cause as a confirmation of the Nation’s founding ideals, not what it actually was—a revolution against them.   Lincoln knew, and more recently Princeton historian James M. McPherson has acknowledged, that the Civil war represented among other things, a revolt of the modern industrial capitalism of the North against the outmoded slaveholding capitalism that we refer to as “Jeffersonian Democracy.”

The “Gettysburg Address” November 19, 1863, displaced one set of facts, the existence of slavery and inequality, with alternative facts, words on parchment about liberty and equality.   On the one hand it was a fact that the United States had declared independence with the words “all men are created equal,” and it was also a fact that Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote those words never expected them to be applied to African Americans. Jefferson made it very clear in Notes on the State of Virginia, that he believed African Americans were so inferior, they could not be absorbed into the American people and recommended that they should be deported. But on deportation, he contradicted himself in 1820, when he supported the expansion of slavery into the territories. Jefferson’s “Kentucky Resolution,” of 1799, contained, in the words of James A, Garfield “the germ of nullification and secession” that led to the Civil War. Jefferson would have considered the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 unconstitutional.

So Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” was based on a rosy fabrication of the American Foundation Myth, that would have done Ronald Reagan proud. It was an attempt to convince anyone who would listen that the “great civil war,” was a war to preserve the nation’s founding ideals, not an effort to completely revise those ideals, and ultimately to alter the Constitution by the addition of three radical amendments. One of these amendments, the Fourteenth, became foundational to the rise of nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial capitalism, a system that held potential for industrial democracy, unlike its predecessor, Jeffersonian Democracy. But industrial democracy was only imperfectly realized in the reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society.

The cycle of American business history, launched by Alexander Hamilton and augmented by Lincoln was a mixed bag. The historical irony is that while Lincoln’s revolution led to the decline of slavery, it led ultimately to such expressions as Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), which granted citizenship rights to corporations and in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, which declared that money is speech, and in 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which expanded the power of the financial community in American politics.

Lincoln was like Ronald Reagan, and unlike Jimmy Carter, in that he knew the importance of deceiving the American people and presenting them with an unrealistic and rosy view of their history, rather than confronting them with disturbing truths. But Lincoln was more like Carter, and less like Reagan, in that he knew the American people would some day have to accept bitter truths about their past before they would be willing to do what was right.

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