Disney in the Classroom
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(My thoughts on the Gettysburg Address are for the most part a paraphrase of the ideas put forth in Lincoln at Gettysburg- The Words That Remade America by Gary Wills. This excellent book won the Pulitzer Prize and provides outstanding insight on Lincoln's most famous speech.)
It is a common myth that Abraham Lincoln composed the Gettysburg Address on the spur of the moment and that he felt his words had failed to effect anyone. Often added to the myth is the audience's reaction to the speech. ("Is that all?") In reality Lincoln was not expected to deliver a long speech at Gettysburg, but only a few appropriate remarks. The principal speaker that day was Edward Everett. Everett's nearly two hour oration covered the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail and explained the historical importance of the contest. Everyone present was very impressed and pleased by Everett's presentation. When Lincoln rose to speak all that was expected was some solemn platitudes. However, even at first hearing, what came to be called the Gettysburg Address was obviously much more than a simple cemetery dedication. According to newspaper accounts of the day those present interrupted the short speech with applause five times. Perhaps they sensed the greatness of the deceptively simple words. Edward Everett said it best when he wrote Lincoln a short time later:
"I wish I had come as close to the meaning of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes..."
Of course Lincoln knew what he wanted to accomplish at Gettysburg. It was nothing short of a "transformation of what the Civil War meant". (Wills p. 38) He wanted to make the sacrifice at Gettysburg not just a victory for the Union; but a instrument to "cleanse the Constitution" making it more than a legal compromise between good and evil. Instead of a document that made gross inequality (slavery) legal he wanted to transform The Constitution into a national commitment to equality.
Lincoln did this by placing the foundation of American principals on a document older than The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence. While the original Constitution contains nothing about a right to equal treatment; that is the whole point of The Declaration. Lincoln believed that The Declaration was the founding document of The United States. (Four score and seven years ago was, in 1863, 1776) Lincoln viewed The Constitution as an agreement to fulfill the promise of The Declaration. An agreement flawed by the compromise which allowed slavery to remain legal. Lincoln's view of The Declaration as the founding document of The United States is why he never accepted the Secession of the South. Southerners believed they could legally secede because each state had voted on whether or not to accept The Constitution as its authority; and so each state could also vote to no longer accept that authority. However, Lincoln believed The United States became a country when The Thirteen Colonies united to seek independence. To him achieving that independence meant that the former colonies were one nation forevermore. To Lincoln this bond could not be broken. The Constitution only existed to make the bond "more perfect".
Yet, Lincoln knew that the Constitution had failed, and that the Civil War was a test to see if "a nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.....can long endure." He felt that by going back to the founding Document the Constitution and the Nation could be redeemed. The Union soldiers at Gettysburg fought and died to make it possible for the Nation to live. It could not live on as it had, half slave and half free. It was a house sure to fall. What Gettysburg made possible was "a new birth of freedom"..... "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
So did the Gettysburg Address achieve the purpose for which it was created? I believe it did since "the Civil War means, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean." (Wills, p. 38) The United States is (not "are" as it was before the Civil War) a country committed to the proposition of equality for everyone, not privilege for a few. This proposition certainly took a long time to be fully realized. However, because Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address and because its ideals were codified in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments there was no doubt that someday Lincoln's words at Gettysburg would "remake America".