Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – By the bye, Richard Gamble, a friend and colleague of Dr. Brad Birzer’s at Hillsdale had a piece posted last week at The American Conservative Magazine entitled “Gettysburg Gospel.” I did not know this. Did you know that some of the quotes that Lincoln tossed into the American scripture were actually taken from a journal? Check out today’s transcript for the rest…
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: If you read H.L. Mencken’s take on the most hallowed of all American gospels, the Gettysburg Address, you will find — I actually link to the page in the book. Here’s what Mencken wrote when he was confronted with someone worshipping at the shrine, at the Parthenon of Lincoln.
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 selfdetermination—”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.
Mike: That’s brilliant stuff there. By the bye, Richard Gamble, a friend and colleague of Dr. Brad Birzer’s at Hillsdale had a piece posted last week at The American Conservative Magazine entitled “Gettysburg Gospel.” I did not know this. Did you know that some of the quotes that Lincoln tossed into the American scripture were actually taken from a journal?
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Lincoln’s propositional apriorism mirrors the German idealism imported into the United States in the first half of the 19th century (at times secondhand via France and England). We know from Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, that Lincoln admired Boston’s radical Unitarian and Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker. Parker, who died in 1860, had been one of the principal conduits of avant-garde German philosophy and theology into New England. We also know from Herndon that in 1858 he brought Lincoln a copy of Parker’s 1850 sermon “The Effect of Slavery on the American People.” Herndon recalled that Lincoln “liked especially the following expression, which he marked with a pencil, and which he in substance afterwards used in his Gettysburg address: ‘Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.’”
Just above these words, which Herndon paraphrased, Parker referred to the “American idea.” Parker warned of “two principles” struggling for “mastery” in the United States. Only one of them was truly the “American idea.” “I so name it,” he said,
“because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.”
Read alongside the Gettysburg Address, Parker’s contribution to the speech is unmistakable. At points the wording is nearly identical. This is not to say that Lincoln plagiarized from Parker. [Mike: We better get Rachel Maddow on this case. Old dishonest Abe might have been a plagiarist.] The point is to draw attention to how much Lincoln compressed into his brief speech. His civil philosophy, indebted to German Idealists like Parker, distilled something as complex, diverse, untidy, and contested as the formation of the American republic into one proposition, and then from that fragment of a fragment of the past extrapolated both the essence of America in 1863 and its purpose in the future. No part of any sentence of any document, even if that document is the Declaration of Independence, can carry this load.
Embedded in the Gettysburg Address, the proposition defined the making of America and why it fought a costly war. We cannot know how Lincoln would have wielded the proposition in pursuit of America’s postwar domestic and foreign policy; his death in 1865 left that question open . . .
One hundred and fifty years ago, President Lincoln, in the midst of a long and brutal war, deployed a powerful civil religion, civil history, and civil philosophy to superimpose one reading of American history onto any competitors. Ever since, generations of Americans have come to believe that we have always been a democratic nation animated by an Idea. [Mike: Folks, that is as ridiculous a proposition and as ahistorical one as you could possibly fabricate. In other words, that may be the biggest and grandest lie Satan ever told.] The alternatives have been excluded from the national creed as heresy. The way most Americans today interpret the Declaration of Independence, the purposes of the War for Independence, the principles that underlie America’s Constitution, the causes and consequences of the Civil War, and the calling of the propositional nation to the rest of the world comes largely from the Gettysburg Address. To the degree we allow Lincoln’s words to mediate how we read American history, they will continue to settle, preemptively, the most contested questions about America’s origin, purpose, and destiny.
Mike: In other words, you have people out there, entire generations now, that read the rest of the history of the United States as though it has to be read through the lens of Lincoln’s reading glasses and the hand-scribbled 268 words of the Gettysburg Address. We don’t give George Washington that much credit.
End Mike Church Show Transcript