The 20th century ended amid well-founded optimism that Latin America had taken firm steps toward democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Only the island of Cuba seemed stuck in the era of military dictatorship and authoritarianism. But in the last 15 years, things have changed. Political violence has reappeared in many Latin countries and criminality is on the rise, with concomitant erosion of respect for individual rights.
My previous posts for Law and Liberty examining Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Bible in the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses generated interest that far exceeded my expectations (and those of the editor). These were primarily descriptive rather than critical assessments of the propriety of Lincoln’s references or allusions to Scripture in these celebrated orations. Space constraints did not allow me to explore other issues of interest to me, such as the perils of deploying religion in political—often partisan—rhetoric.
The sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address on November 19 requires us to ponder the legacy of the Civil War and Lincoln. This is not some nostalgic romp reenacting Pickett’s charge, but perhaps the decisive political moment of our times. For the best, President Obama will not participate in the official celebration.
This uncharacteristic modesty is appropriate, for Franklin Roosevelt already delivered the Progressive interpretation of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s remarks on the 75th anniversary of the battle, July 3, 1938. FDR’s interpretation of the Address and of the meaning of liberty, equality, and constitutionalism generally have so permeated contemporary thinking that we must confront the original source of these errors in order to free ourselves to understand Lincoln as he thought and acted.
When ordinary Americans reflect at all on their political tradition, the Gettysburg Address invariably stands at the center of those thoughts. Yet there is reason to doubt whether it ought to occupy the same rarified air as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist, or other celebrated documents in American history. The Gettysburg Address has displaced these other works from their centrality in the American mind, but it shouldn’t.
On the afternoon of November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a brief address at the dedication of a national cemetery on Gettysburg’s battlefield. The solemn ceremony took place four and a half months after Union forces turned back the army of the Confederate States on July 1-3 in the bloodiest engagement of the Civil War. The battle claimed the lives of nearly eight thousand soldiers. Lincoln’s carefully crafted address was barely 272 words in length and required approximately two minutes to deliver. It is widely acclaimed as one of the most poignant and eloquent speeches in American letters.
Reading several M.A. thesis drafts has put me in a prickly mood about the quality of student writing. But now I can junk the “Track Changes” feature, since automated editing software can replace my nitpicking, surgery, and triage. Ed X, a nonprofit online education site founded by Harvard and MIT, plans to “make its automated software available free on the Web.”
David Lebedoff, who wrote what appears to be a fascinating comparison of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, fears this device might yield this correction of the Gettysburg Address. (See the comment by “Madwoman” at 10:34 a.m. Saturday, who reports pedagogic malpractice by a teacher who relied on a computer program and marked down a student for errors in a quoted passage. )
Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s Lincoln opens with a chaotic battle in a river, black and white soldiers struggling to kill each other in hand-to-hand combat. We then see pairs of black and white soldiers reciting from memory the Gettysburg Address back to the President.
Lincoln concludes the movie by delivering the Second Inaugural. Most of the time in between is an elaboration of his wartime and Reconstruction strategy and thus a commentary on the purposes of the First Inaugural and the Emancipation Proclamation. These occasions are the rhetorical high points of Lincoln’s presidency, though most of the movie is focused on events in early 1865.