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Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address changed the American psyche, KU professor says

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, at 7:29 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, at 12:48 a.m.

Gettysburg Address

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. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that 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.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863
Bliss Copy of the Address from AbrahamLincolnOnline.org

Jennifer Weber can’t read the Gettysburg Address to her students at the University of Kansas without taking a risk.

She chokes up a little, though she’s a Civil War author and historian. “A new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” She starts losing it right about there.

“I’m not much of a crying person,” she said.

But whenever she steps inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and starts reading the words of the address carved in stone, the tears well up again.

She doesn’t choke up when she tells the president’s story, though.

She regards this as a public service: Abraham Lincoln did more than nearly anyone to save not only the union but probably freedom worldwide.

Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers had been shot or had died of disease by the time Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg the night before he spoke there, she said.

Many people in the North by that time thought the killing was pointless.

They wanted to give up.

But at Gettysburg – 150 years ago Tuesday – Lincoln told Americans how noble they could be.

‘Lincoln had a vision’

In 1863, there were only two republican forms of government in the world, Weber said. “One was the United States. The other was Switzerland. The Swiss never left much of a footprint.

“The rest of the world was governed by kings or oligarchs or tyrants,” she said. “A lot of people in Europe were looking at us either in admiration or in great fear that our form of government might spread.”

The United States was only 74 years old at that time. The country was fragile, she said. Freedom worldwide was rare and also fragile.

All other attempts at democracy had failed, in Athens, in the Republic of Rome. Nobody really thought common people were bright enough to make democracy last.

“But Lincoln had a vision, that this country was, as he said elsewhere, ‘the last best hope’ for the world,” she said.

“He hung on to that vision even when it looked like the vision was about to come crashing down.”

A lot of people thought the war should end. Let the South go.

More than 51,000 Americans were shot, captured or went missing in three days at Gettysburg in July 1863. Before that, thousands more had been shot at First Bull Run, then outside Richmond, Va. Then Second Bull Run. Shiloh. Antietam. Fredericksburg. Chancellorsville. Vicksburg. Chickamauga.

People were horrified. Lincoln was horrified. But Weber said Lincoln had visualized something worse: the North losing.

“Now you’ve got two nations,” she said. “I don’t think it is out of the question, you would have seen the Midwestern states leave, too. They didn’t have any more love for the people of New York or Boston than Southerners did.

“Then you would have lost the Pacific states.”

And then, she said, we’d have “a map of North America that looks like the map of South America.” All those smaller countries.

After a few decades, she said, there would have been no United States to tip the scales of history, either in World War I or World War II.

Slavery would have continued for 4 million Americans – and possibly expanded. Southern leaders wanted to march armies and transplant their plantation economy “to Cuba, the northern tier of South America, the eastern coast of Mexico.”

War was a test, Lincoln said

Lincoln wasn’t billed as the main speaker that day at Gettysburg. That honor had gone to a flowery orator named Edward Everett. “Lincoln had more or less invited himself,” Weber said. “He had something to say. He knew he needed to say something to keep people motivated, to give them a reason to stay motivated.”

When he stood up and spoke, he finished so fast, in only two minutes and 272 words, that the photographer trying to capture his image didn’t have time to take the picture.

Some people didn’t get it. Lincoln, a sensitive soul, fretted for days afterward about critics who dismissed or ignored what he said. He had no idea that the speech would be memorized by schoolchildren north and south for the next 150 years.

The war, Lincoln told people that day, was not pointless at all. It was a test, he said. About whether a nation like ours, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, could long endure.

Besides Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address was one of the great turning points that prompted people to keep going. Many people caught on that the war was about freedom – and not only for black people. By late 1864, soldiers who could have gone home stayed in the army. Voters in 1864 returned Lincoln to office, even after all that bloodshed. They agreed with Lincoln: It was worth it.

It is wrong to say that Lincoln accomplished all this alone, Weber said. Hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers fought; tens of thousands died. Two hundred thousand black men joined the Union Army and Navy at about the same time that many nervous white men were finding ways to avoid the draft and the slaughter, Weber said. Thousands of black men, women and children all over the South uprooted themselves from shelter and food supplies, stopped digging trenches and growing food for the Confederate Army, and escaped to Union lines.

But there were many times when the fate of the Union depended on that one man in the White House.

He was, Weber said, perhaps one of the most lonely men who ever lived. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, could be difficult. His favorite son, a gentle little boy named Willie, died in the White House in 1862, nearly killing Lincoln with grief.

In public life, people blamed him for the killing and for the spectacular way that the Union Army in the East fumbled around and lost battles. Easterners in his own political party called him a “gorilla” and said he was a crude man fond of vulgar stories.

They had no idea that Lincoln read the Bible and Shakespeare for pleasure and that, like Shakespeare or the narrator of the 23rd Psalm, he could pack formidable weight in few words.

The war was about freedom, he told people at Gettysburg. The soldiers who lay at Gettysburg had thought freedom was worth what he called the last full measure. It was a sacrifice he made himself on April 15, 1865, a day after a bitter man shot him just weeks after he’d written another lyrical speech, the Second Inaugural, which, as Weber said, is all about forgiveness.

Lincoln was ‘remarkable’

Weber’s favorite time to visit the Lincoln Memorial is at night, when lights play gently upon the pillars and she can sit on the steps, quiet and still. In the distance, beyond the Reflecting Pool, she can see the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, both bathed in light.

Lincoln was not a perfect man, she said. “But he was remarkable.” She fell in love with his story at age 6.

Before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, people thought Thomas Jefferson had defined the soul of the nation with the Declaration of Independence.

But in 1855, in a private letter, Lincoln pointed out how Jefferson’s promise had been perverted.

“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘ all men are created equal,’ ” he wrote. “We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Lincoln put a stop to all that, Weber said.

He didn’t do it alone. The graves at Gettysburg and Shiloh and many other places are filled with the bones of people who gave that last full measure.

But he did more than anyone to redeem Jefferson’s promise, especially on that day in Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, as she has done in previous years on Nov. 19, Jennifer Weber, a professor of history in Lawrence, will take a few moments and remember Lincoln.

As she does on the steps of his memorial, she’ll sit quiet and still.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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