The Gettysburg Address and Lovely Lies

Yesterday was the 150th memorial of the Gettysburg Address. Aglow with Lincoln hagiography and pride at our cultural progress, many modern Americans don’t understand the real significance of the Gettysburg Address for its time. So I thought it would be a good opportunity to open this can of worms.

Opting not to give a speech at the 150th anniversary commemoration, Obama instead hand-wrote a note of appreciation for the landmark political speech. One cannot help but think that Obama had himself in mind when he described Lincoln’s mid-war emotional state and personal burden:

I linger on these few words that have helped define our American experiment: “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Through the lines of weariness etched in his face, we know Lincoln grasped, perhaps more than anyone [“aside from me, of course”], the burdens required to give those words meaning. He knew that even a self-evident truth was not self executing . . .

I’m sure Obama believes that he himself is engaged in a similar battle. And perhaps he is. Because Lincoln’s battle was not actually one of right, it was one of might. That Lincoln eventually got his way in the conflict ended in the ruin of a good idea and the establishment of a bad one. Listen to the wise words of famous curmudgeon H. L. Mencken concerning 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 child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. 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 oratory, 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. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.

So, the Gettysburg Address is a beautiful lie. The cult of Lincoln, like the cult of Obama, wants desperately to believe something that just isn’t true. Beautiful words, like sugar for medicine, help the lies go down, and stay down. I truly appreciate the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation (which, contrary to the test for American citizenship, didn’t free a single slave) as brilliant pieces of political maneuvering. But I am tired of hearing about Lincoln’s love for freedom, black people, or the Union. Lincoln, in effect, despised all three. His tyrannical disregard for executive restraint is famous, his racism is infamous, his love for the Union dubious. So perhaps Obama is right to align himself so squarely with Lincoln, since he’s also a racist tyrant dedicated to the destruction of our country.

The legacy of the Gettysburg Address is one where beauty and rhetoric trumps logic and sense. It is one where a hand-written note sopping with postured sincerity will stand in for real transparency and effective leadership. I applaud it for its political prowess, but must denounce it for its lies. I’m deeply, profoundly sorry if that offends you. If you want, I can even write you a hand-written note of apology.