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156 years of the Gettysburg Address
The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history... It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.
But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—"that government of the people, by the people, for the people," should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.
- H. L. Mencken
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is 156 years old today, and remains one of the most celebrated speeches in American history. It was given in dedication to the Union victory at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania several months after the battle. As Mencken points out in the quote above, Lincoln was engaging in chicanery when he stated, "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The Union soldiers, at Lincoln's behest, fought against "government of the people" by fighting to deny that right to the southern secessionists.
Lincoln made it clear that denying the right of self-government to the southern states would be the policy of his regime in his first inaugural address, stating:
A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.
I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination...
I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States... I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
This is not the only part of the Gettysburg Address that sees Lincoln's rhetoric being the opposite of reality, however. Earlier in the speech, he states:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
The destruction or overthrow of the United States government, contrary to Lincoln's claim that Union soldiers died protecting the "life" of the United States, was never a goal of the Confederacy. The goal was peaceful, but separate, coexistence with the United States. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, said in his inaugural address:
An agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of a commodity required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest, and that of all those to whom we would sell and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of commodities. There can be but little rivalry between ours and any manufacturing or navigating community, such as the Northeastern States of the American Union. It must follow, therefore, that a mutual interest would invite good will and kind offices. If, however, passion or the lust of dominion should cloud the judgment or inflame the ambition of those States, we must prepare to meet the emergency and to maintain, by the final arbitrament of the sword, the position which we have assumed among the nations of the earth. We have entered upon the career of independence, and it must be inflexibly pursued
In short, every aspect of this most famous of American speeches is complete nonsense. Lincoln was Trumpian in his willingness to shamelessly spin events into whatever narrative benefited him politically, even if it was the opposite of reality. Despite his reputation as "Honest Abe," Lincoln was in fact one of the most dishonest politicians in American history, and the Gettysburg Address is one of his greatest cons.