Rebirth of Freedom?
On November 19th in 1863 an ailing Abraham Lincoln unfolded his lanky frame from a too-short chair on a make-shift stage on the Gettysburg battlefield. His high tenor voice carried to the edges of the crowd as he delivered his 272-word speech dedicating a cemetery still under construction to inter the bodies of soldiers killed there the previous July.
Modern audiences, with shorter attention spans, would undoubtedly have welcomed the spare prose of the President’s address following the two-hour oration by principal speaker Edward Everett. Everett’s flowery 13,607-word speech was what 19th-century audiences expected and enjoyed so the President’s “dedicatory remarks,”—as they were termed on the day’s program—were shockingly brief. But Everett’s exhaustive efforts have all but disappeared into the mists of time while Lincoln’s have become an enduring presence in American culture.
Indeed, entire books and documentaries have been devoted to the Gettysburg Address. In 1993 Garry Wills received the Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, an in-depth analysis of the speech that he argues reshaped Americans’ view of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Wills, a conservative who later drifted left, classified Lincoln in his “dangerous dreamers” category which he defined as leaders who embraced "inspirational political theories" and conceived of government as "the order of justice," as opposed to the "really great conservatives" who stand against the "enthusiasms that commanded the power centers of their day." Yet he concedes that Lincoln “distilled the meaning of the war, of the nation’s purpose, of the remaining task, in a statement that is straightforward yet magical. … (He) casts a spell; and what can rebuttal do to incantation.”
So what does a 19th-century speech, no matter how eloquent, have to do with us today? I would argue, plenty. Wills contends that “A nation born of an idea finds that idea life-giving.”
Lincoln, once a starry-eyed adulator of the Founding Fathers, had by 1863 come to see that neither the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution had fulfilled the promise of political equality or freedom for all. That, Wills contends, is the “new birth of freedom” he called for in the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address.
In the short time he had left on Earth, Lincoln fought to put that “new birth” into law. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and brought truer meaning to the Founding Fathers’ declarations. A year later, the 14th Amendment promised “equal protection under the law” for all citizens of any color or heritage and, in 1870, the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote.
Today we are in an America where the concept of ‘freedom and justice for all” is faltering. Donald Trump, who leads by a massive margin in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, even argued for “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” in his bid to overthrow the 2020 election. That was simply a clear statement of an action he had already tried to take when he instructed Vice President Mike Pence to set aside the Constitution—disenfranchising 74,223,369 voters who cast ballots for Joe Biden—to overturn the election results.
And the attacks on civil liberties have not abated. We see efforts to disenfranchise minority voters through redistricting; we see attempts to reverse hard-gained civil liberties for gay and lesbian men and women; we see efforts to close our borders to foreigners—particularly those from third-world countries and of certain religions—and we have already seen the catastrophic effect on women (especially poor women) of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
In June the Court gutted Affirmative Action for college admissions. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court's first Black female justice, dissented, stating the obvious truth: "With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces 'colorblindness for all' by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life."
In just the past year the Court nibbled away at separation of church and state, allowing prayer at school athletic events and letting the government assert the state secrets privilege in defending unlawful surveillance targeted at Muslims based on their religion.
It empowered police by decreeing a plaintiff could not sue an officer for violating Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination by failing to provide a Miranda warning and decided a Canadian border B‘n’B operator could not seek financial damages for harm caused by a Border Patrol officer’s excessive force and retaliation, even if the officer violated the Constitution.
The Court struck down New York’s restriction on concealed carry and eroded the legal basis for gun regulations, ruling that states can regulate guns today only if they can point to similar laws in the 18th and 19th centuries! And the list goes on …
These actions would seem to be the opposite of what young Americans, surveyed by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy in late 2022, said they found most important in a democracy. Most respondents emphasized either that democracy allows “the voice of the people” to influence government or that the system offers protection for rights and liberties.
The landscape of America is being changed and rights and protections are being systematically stripped away from its most vulnerable citizens. Lincoln, a notably tender-hearted man, so believed in the “idea” of this nation that he led it into its bloodiest war ever to right social wrongs and preserve a Union that, flawed as it was, might still embrace “a new birth of freedom.”
Will the majority of Americans today be inspired as Wills says we must be, by the “life-giving idea” that is at our foundation?