November 22, 2013

HE WAS, AFTER ALL, SPEAKING TO PURITANS:

Lincoln's Sound Bite: Have Faith in Democracy (ALLEN C. GUELZO, 11/17/13, NY Times)

The address is less like an oration, and more like that oldest of American genres, the Puritan jeremiad, the public sermon that warned our forebears of their sins but also offered them a path to redemption. The three-part, past-present-future movement in the address matches the same movement in the jeremiad, and like it, the address contains both a word of warning and a promise of blessing.

The warning Lincoln issues is his admission that the Civil War was testing whether or not democracies are inherently unstable -- "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure." Today, many take democracy for granted as the endpoint of political development. But it did not look that way in 1863. The French Revolution, which promised to be the American Revolution's beachhead in Europe, swiftly circled downward in the Reign of Terror and then the tyranny of Bonaparte; democratic uprisings in Spain in 1820, in Russia in 1825, in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848 were crushed by newly renascent monarchies or subverted by Romantic philosophers, glorying in regimes built on blood, soil and nationality rather than the Rights of Man.

The outbreak of the American Civil War only gave the monarchs further reason to rejoice. The survival of the American democracy had been a thorn in their royal sides, unsettling their downtrodden peoples with dreams of self-government. That this same troublesome democracy would, in 1861, obligingly proceed to blow its own political brains out -- and do it in defense of the virtues of human slavery -- gave the monarchs no end of delight.

Lincoln's task at Gettysburg was to persuade his hearers, on the evidence offered by three days of battle, that democracy's sun had not set after all. Gettysburg was not only a victory, but a victory won with the Union Army's back to the wall, and its news came, appropriately, on July 4.

Above all, the victory was the product of self-sacrifice -- 3,155 Union dead, 14,529 wounded and 5,365 "missing," rivaling British and Allied losses at Waterloo. These casualties were not professional soldiers, Wellington's "scum of the earth" who had taken their shilling and their chance together, nor were they dispirited peasants, driven into battle by the whips of their betters, but precisely those ordinary citizens whom the cultured despisers of democracy had laughingly doubted could ever be made to do anything but calculate profit and loss.

Looking out over the semicircular rows of graves, Lincoln saw in them a transcendence that few people, then or now, have been willing to concede to liberal democracy. And he saw something all could borrow, a renewed dedication to popular self-government, "that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion." Like the jeremiad, it would point toward a renewal, a new birth, not of freedom from sin, but political freedom.

The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy's follies, and in the reminder that democracy's survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.
Posted by at November 22, 2013 12:13 PM
  
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