President Lincoln delivered his short 272-word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 on the battlefield near Gettysburg. For Americans, the Constitution was a key component of culture and a key unifier for the nation. Ripe with symbolism, the hallowed ground of a cemetery supported constitutional values of unity, respect, and obedience to the rule of law. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg reflects the appeals to sentiment and the Constitution that were frequently invoked in the decades prior to the Civil War (Brophy, 2016).
The speech expresses our nation’s ideals of republicanism, constitutionalism, and equality. According to the literature of the day, reaction at the time to the speech was mixed. The Chicago Times called the utterances “silly, flat, and dishwatery.” The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, raved the oration would “live among the annals of man,” while the Springfield Republican dubbed the speech a “perfect gem.” Perhaps the highest praise came from Massachusetts Senator and anti-slavery leader, Charles Sumner, who called the speech a “monumental act” that was sanctified by Lincoln’s martyrdom. He added that ideas are more important than battles and that the world had noted what Lincoln said and “will never cease to remember” (Cornell, 2013).
Garry Wills argues that Lincoln’s famous address was “one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight of hand ever witnessed” and that Lincoln had substituted a “new Constitution.” The speech was indeed a daring act which no doubt simultaneously pleased some while angering many others. It is worth noting that Lincoln was assassinated not long after the speech on April 14, 1865. According to Wills, Lincoln argued neither law nor history but rather made history by imposing a symbol that appealed to national values and “called up a new nation out of blood and trauma.” In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln emphasized the principle of equality as being central to the Constitution. Lincoln also used the “United States” as a singular noun, which evoked national unity despite observers having just endured the traumatic Civil War (Wills, 2012).
Wills claims that the speech made the idea of a union less of a “mystical hope” and more of a “constitutional reality” (Wills, 2012). While Lincoln was thoughtful with his words and certainly made an impact on the attendant audience and generations that would follow, I disagree that the Gettysburg Address substantially altered the way the Constitution is viewed. One is a speech by a single executive officer at a given point in the nation’s history, while the other is a ratified enduring document. Lincoln’s masterful use of language gave comfort and inspiration to a nation in mourning but in no way was intended to deceive the audience as suggested by Wills. Lincoln’s references to conception resulting in a “new birth of freedom” was an interesting way to equate the pain of warfare to the pangs of childbirth but did not itself emote revolution—in fact, quite the opposite. I agree with Wills that Lincoln changed the way people thought about the Constitution, but I do not agree that he “corrected” the Constitution as claimed. Have we been changed by Lincoln’s words? Yes, many throughout history have been inspired. Are we living in a different America because of the Gettysburg Address? I would say we are living in a more tolerant and forgiving and united nation than we otherwise would be living in absent Lincoln’s immortal words of unity.
From 1787 until the Civil War, the nation was preoccupied with questions of state sovereignty and the nature of the union (McClellan, 2000, 490-491). In the address, Lincoln was trying to convey to the people of the union and the rest of the divided country that the principles for which the men on the battlefield fought should be protected. These were enduring constitutional principles for which no man should die in vain. The same principles are in effect today while men and women are still dying, but we pray they are also not dying in vain. Through his deftness with language, Lincoln was able to convey a message of hope and determination, speaking of the principles our country was founded upon and why we can never forget the importance of each event of the Civil War—a war that still echoes and embodies everything we stand for as a country (Univ. of Richmond, 2020). Nations routinely rise and fall, and it is political leadership at key points that often make a critical difference, as was the case with the great statesman Abraham Lincoln.
Analysis of the Gettysburg Address. The University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab (2020). https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/6662
Brophy, Alfred L. The Road to the Gettysburg Address, 43 Florida State University Law Review, 831 (2016). https://ir.law.fsu.edu/lr/vol43/iss3/2
Gettysburg Address. Civil War Trust (2017). http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/gettysburg-address.html
Gettysburg Address. New World Encyclopedia (2017). http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Gettysburg_Address
McClellan, James. Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (2000).
The Gettysburg Address. Cornell University Library (2013). https://rmc.library.cornell.edu/gettysburg/ideas_more/reactions_p3.htm#Charles_Sumner
Wills, Garry. The Words That Remade America: The significance of the Gettysburg Address. The Atlantic (2012). https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/02/the-words-that-remade-america/308801/