A brief intellectual history of the Gettysburg Address

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Richard Gamble of Hillsdale College wrote about the influences on the speech and its influence on the American self-concept at The American Conservative, making some surprising (for me, anyway) connections.

Here is Gamble’s section on civil religion:

In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah launched the modern career of “civil religion” as a concept, a way to examine how, on the one hand, the state adopts religious language, ritual, holidays, and symbolism to bind a nation together and how, on the other hand, it elevates its own values and ideas to the status of holy doctrine. Regarding the first type, University of Toronto political theorist Ronald Beiner recently defined civil religion as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its purposes.” Lincoln had been doing this to the Bible since at least 1838. He ended his Lyceum Address by applying Matthew 16:18 to American liberty: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” More famously, in 1858 he quoted Matthew 12:25 to characterize the precarious state of the Union: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Also, Gamble explores the use of the word “nation”:

Lincoln’s exclusive use of “nation” in this speech for the thing that was founded, tested, and awaited rebirth deserves careful notice. In the domestic and international context of the 1860s, this was a powerful word. In the first place, it answered the most contested political question from 1787 to 1861—and not just between the North and the South but between anyone who argued over whether a citizen’s allegiance belonged first to his state or to the Union. “Nation” swept aside all other options. Secondly, the mid-19th century was the age of Europe’s wars of national unification. To be a “nation” in 1863 meant something quite different from what it had before the French Revolution. It now signified an organic “people,” unified at the core, and raised up by a Providential history to fulfill a unique mission.

This mission was defined by the “proposition that all men are created equal.” According to Gamble, this construction was influenced by German idealism. The address helped to create a new type of American exceptionalism in the mold of 19th-century European nations’ nationalistic self-conceptions. This conception of the nation demands its citizens’ ultimate loyalty.

The whole article is worth reading.

One part where I think that Gamble overdoes it is his analysis of why Lincoln chooses 1776 (rather than 1774, 1787, 0r 1788) as the birth year of the United States. I believe that 1776’s independence was already widely celebrated.

I’ve posted about civil religion and the American mission before. This post referred to the importance of civil religion long before Gettysburg, and this posts (1 and 2) pointed to an argument that the Cold War produced the same effects on American conservatism that Gamble points to in the Gettysburg Address.


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