July 4, 2019


Lincoln at Gettysburg (Diana Schaub, Spring 2014, National Affairs)

Lincoln's next two clauses mention two key ideas: liberty and equality, each of which is linked to the dominant metaphor of birth. Casting back before the advent moment in 1776 to the moment of conception, Lincoln says the nation was "conceived in Liberty." What could that mean? How literally should this language of sexual congress be taken?

Of course, "to conceive" can denote either a physical or a mental phenomenon: becoming pregnant or taking a notion into the mind. Before the nation could be brought forth into practical realization, it had to be thought of or imagined. Whence arose the concept? According to Lincoln, it originated "in Liberty." Of the handful of common nouns that appear mid-sentence throughout the speech, this is the only one Lincoln capitalized, although he might have capitalized "people" (as he did in both the Lyceum and Temperance Addresses, as well as in some of his Thanksgiving Proclamations) or "freedom" (since it is the proper name, so to speak, of the new birth prophesied at the end of the speech). The result is that "Liberty" and "God" are, in effect, the only capitalized words, since none of the sentence-starting words would normally be capitalized.

Why does Lincoln incarnate liberty in this way and what does it mean to be "conceived in Liberty"? Whenever the interpretation of Lincoln is at issue, the Bible is a good starting place. Psalms 51:5 speaks of being conceived in sin: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." The passage takes one back to Genesis 3:16: "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." Quite different is the Gospel description of the virgin conception. In Luke 1:31, the angel tells Mary, "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son," and in Matthew 1:20, the angel assures Joseph that "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost."

According to Lincoln's redaction, the new nation was conceived not in sin or sorrow but in liberty, although given the use that humans make of their liberty, there might not be much difference between the terms. Beneath the beautiful thought that the nation was conceived in the pure womb of liberty there lurks the afterthought evoked by the distant resonance of Psalm 51's conceived in sin. That psalm, known as the Miserere, is the most famous of the seven penitential psalms. In it, a contrite King David prays for a clean heart and a renewed spirit after his unjust taking of Bathsheba, the wife of the humble Uriah. The old Adamic/Davidic conception in sin and the new salvific one in the womb of Mary are explicitly linked through the genealogy that opens the book of Matthew. The list of 41 generations (the "begats") is interrupted only twice, once to interject that "David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias" and then to mention that 14 generations later the Israelites were "carried away to Babylon." Among the wages of David's sin was civil war brought on by the insurrection of his son Absalom. (William Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom!, certainly saw parallels between the Biblical and American stories.)

In his very frank 1855 letter to his dearest friend, Joshua Speed, Lincoln uses a variant of "conceived in sin" when he declares that the Kansas-Nebraska Act "was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence." But while Lincoln's poetry in the Gettysburg Address is deep enough to sound these darker echoes of sin and sorrow, the surface meaning of "conceived in Liberty" is altogether positive, although not perfectly clear. John Channing Briggs, in his wonderful 2005 book, Lincoln's Speeches Reconsidered, stresses the obscurity of Lincoln's phrasing: "Certainly, if one presses the metaphor to its sensible limit, the nation had parentage; but the manner and precise timing of its conception...is hidden as well as enacted in Liberty." Briggs refers his readers to Eva Brann's 1976 essay, "A Reading of Lincoln's 'Gettysburg Address'" (without a doubt, the best and most extensive article-length treatment available).

Leon Kass, in his admirable 2007 speech, "The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Reinterpretation of the American Founding," tries once again to plumb the mysteries of the nation's generation. He develops three scenarios. Perhaps Lincoln means to suggest that, just as a child might be conceived in love, the nation was conceived in liberty. Liberty, or maybe love of liberty, was the seminal passion that eventually produced the nation. Or perhaps "conceived in Liberty" indicates that the idea of a new nation was freely formed and chosen. While the Declaration itself insists on the force of "necessity," Lincoln instead highlights the operation of free will; the nation was conceived in an act of liberty. One final possibility is that Lincoln means to refer further back, even centuries back, into the colonial period. Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance, argues that the spirit of liberty was present from the first in the English colonies. He explains how the aristocratic liberty of the mother country assumed a new more democratic form in the New World. If so, then British liberty was the womb (the Latin is matrix) within which the new nation gestated.

These three speculations are not, in fact, incompatible with one another: A love of liberty, long present among the colonists, did flare up in one decisive, freely chosen act, transforming British subjects into founders.

The organic, "gentle" character of Lincoln's account of the nation's origins suggests a further concern. Perhaps Lincoln did not want to come anywhere near words like "revolution" or "independence" while in the midst of putting down "a gigantic Rebellion." For him, there is a crystal-clear distinction between a justified revolution, undertaken in response to well-documented violations of rights, and an unjustified rebellion in which one portion of a democratic people, unhappy with the results of a perfectly constitutional election, attempts to nullify that election by secession. The secessionists were in no way comparable to the American revolutionaries.

Lincoln didn't have time in this speech to explain the theoretical difference, as he did at length in other speeches, especially his First Inaugural. Instead, he found euphemisms for the American Revolution like "brought forth" and "conceived in Liberty." He uses the language of generative congress to describe an act of political separation. Given that he was resisting those who wanted a further separation, it was not the time to praise the dissolution of political bands.

created equal

After liberty, the other feature of the founding that is highlighted is equality. Lincoln says the nation is "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Whereas liberty is linked backwards to the nation's conception, equality is more prospective; it involves dedication. As in the moment of christening or baptism, the infant nation is placed on a certain path. Although Lincoln quotes (accurately) from the Declaration, he puts his own gloss on it, famously introducing some key changes.

The Declaration speaks of equality as a truth held to be "self-evident" by the American people. They knew that this self-evident truth was unfortunately not evident to everyone the world over, but they expected that, in time, the scales would fall from the eyes of others (temporarily blinded by false teachings, such as that about the divine right of kings).

"Self-evident" is a term borrowed from geometry. A self-evident truth is an axiom. An axiom doesn't require proof and, in fact, it can't be proved. You just see it or you don't. If a = b and b = c, then a = c. According to the Declaration, human equality is like that; it is axiomatic. All men -- black and white, male and female -- simply are equal in the relevant sense of being endowed by their creator with natural rights to life and liberty. This is the essential truth of the human condition. This foundational truth is not invalidated by the harsh fact that most human beings, in most times and places, have lived under political orders that violate their natural rights, slavery being the most dramatic instance. According to the Declaration, despotic regimes and unjust institutions are illegitimate. It follows that people may exercise their right of revolution in order to establish new governments founded upon the consent of the governed and respectful of the individuals' pre-existing natural rights.

Although there are plenty of places where Lincoln uses the orthodox language of "axiom" or "self-evident" to describe the primary, capital "T" truths of the Declaration, his most famous formulation, here in the Gettysburg Address, calls human equality a "proposition." "Proposition" is another term borrowed from geometry. A proposition, unlike an axiom, requires a proof. That's why one must be "dedicated" to it. It's a theorem that must be demonstrated in practice. That Lincoln was well aware of the distinction between axioms and propositions is evident from a letter he wrote to H. L. Pierce in 1859, where he says:

One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.

What might explain Lincoln's shift from one Euclidean term to the other? It's not that Lincoln suddenly doubts the truth of human equality. It's rather that he wants to highlight the needfulness of translating an abstract truth into concrete political form. As early as the Lyceum Address, Lincoln described the founders as experimental scientists or mathematicians drawn to an unproven proposition. "Their ambition," he said, "aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves." In that formulation, it was self-government -- the corollary of equality -- that needed to be proved. The current crisis, however, was more severe. At the time of the founding, there was general agreement that all were created equal, even if there was no political ability on the part of the very weak federal government to do much about the domestic institution of slavery in the states. Nonetheless, all then understood that slavery was an evil; even those who argued that slavery was necessary (and there were many of those) at least called it "a necessary evil." But subsequent generations had fallen away from this view. Led by John C. Calhoun, Southerners had taken to openly repudiating the truths of the Declaration, calling equality a "self-evident lie" and slavery a "positive good."

In the 1850s, as the crisis of the "house divided" escalated, Lincoln argued that the crisis had arisen because a substantial portion of the American people had lost sight of the truth on which their own rights depended. Lincoln put it concisely in his 1854 Peoria speech: "When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government -- that is despotism."

Since the Civil War was brought on by a serious departure from the meaning of both equality and consent, it seems right for Lincoln, when speaking in the midst of that war, to imply that a truth once firmly held as self-evident had now moved into the ranks of a propositional truth that must be proven in action -- that action being the restoration of a Union dedicated to the principle of equality. We see here, perhaps, that the language of mathematics is not perfectly suited to (or congruent with) politics, since political truths depend on being held in the heart as true. Thus, the Gettysburg Address superimposes religious language (dedicate, consecrate, hallow) on its Euclidean substrate.

In his opening paragraph, in 30 words, Lincoln has performed an act of remembrance. His description of "our fathers" is meant to make his audience reverential. But, at the same time, the generative imagery conveys the message that each successive cohort of Americans is essential to the maturation or completion of the founding. The necessary proof is ongoing. It's up to us to live out the timeless truth to which the nation has been pledged. With this single sentence, Lincoln formed the nation's self-understanding, a self-understanding that unites filial piety with progress. Action here and now is mandated by fidelity to the past. Lincoln's political stance manages to combine liberal elements with profoundly conservative elements.

It is because the Founding was conceived in sin, enshrining slavery, that the new birth is required.
Posted by at July 4, 2019 7:30 AM