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This Week in Freudenfreude: Parrot Lincoln? We Think Not

Hundreds of people died in the hospital bombing this week, so we're going to suspend schadenfreude for another week out of respect. It will be back soon; we have a really good story for that purpose that's just waiting to be deployed. For now, we'll give you an extra-long freudenfreude. We are guessing that is a satisfactory trade; the letters we get suggest that "This Week in Freudenfreude" is our most popular feature. Well, besides our coverage of the imminent Canadian invasion, which will surely be rewarded with a richly deserved Pulitzer one of these days.

Anyhow, given the ongoing train wreck in the House (see above), Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) had an interesting suggestion: "It sounds silly, but let's go to Gettysburg or something... We need to sequester ourselves somewhere else outside the beltway."

We are in no position to comment on the "sequester" part of that idea, since we haven't been in the room to witness the interactions between members. Although we can say it sounds very much like a work "retreat." We do have some experience with those, and find they rarely, if ever, justify the time and hassle.

What we most certainly can comment on is the "Gettysburg" portion of that. That town is not especially convenient for travel (a couple of hours from Washington) and it's not particularly well suited to having multiple hundreds of representatives and their entourages dropping in without notice. Undoubtedly, Garcia suggested it because he thinks it will help his party channel the spirit of first Republican president and American hero Abraham Lincoln, and his greatest speech. We thought we would use this space to talk a little bit about the speech, and also some of the ways in which it illustrates the gap between the Republican Party of Lincoln and that of Jim Jordan.

First, the background, just to make sure all readers are on the same page. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1 to July 4, 1863 (with no shooting, just retreating, on the Fourth). The record-keeping of that era was sub-par, such that we don't know exactly how many men were killed—roughly 8,000 across the two armies, with the Confederates getting the worst of it. What is certain is that it remains the bloodiest battle in U.S. history (while Antietam—Sept. 17, 1862—remains the bloodiest single day).

In 1863, thanks substantially to the war, the U.S. was in the midst of a sea change in funerary practices. Most obviously: (1) There was much progress made in the science of embalming, and (2) burials at home/church declined in favor of burial in independent cemeteries. After Gettysburg, efforts were made to embalm as many bodies as possible and to return them to relatives (particularly the bodies of officers), but trying to process thousands of deceased people in the span of a week or two was not plausible. Further, even if sending the deceased home was theoretically plausible, there were 1,000 or so unknowns. For these reasons, many dead soldiers were buried on or near the battlefield.

Several prominent citizens of the town did not much care for the haphazardness of that, and so they approached the governor of Pennsylvania, a Democrat named Andrew Curtin, to do something about it. Curtin saw much merit in their proposals, particularly after a visit to the battlefield, and appointed local attorney David Wills to make the proposal a reality. Wills secured a large plot of land and hired a landscape architect named William Saunders to design the new cemetery. Re-interments began in September of 1863; there would ultimately be a total of 3,512 of them (including the 1,000 unknowns). Things moved fast in that era; for better or worse, they did not worry if a project like this would disrupt the nesting grounds of the Atlantic spotted sandgrouse. The cemetery was not complete for several years, but it was complete enough that a dedication ceremony was scheduled for November 19, 1863.

In that era, a formal ceremony like this followed a pretty standard and rather drawn-out script. There were several musical selections, a prayer and a benediction, a keynote address and a dedication. The keynote was the main part of the program, and was generally a multi-hour affair. Wills and the planning committee had the perfect person in mind, the Rev. Edward Everett, who was a renowned public speaker, a political moderate (he was never officially a Democrat or Republican, though he leaned in a GOP direction), and a former U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Governor of Massachusetts. For the dedication, which was effectively the icing on the cake, Wills and the planning committee decided to take a shot and ask Lincoln. They didn't think he would accept, but what's the harm in trying? And to their delight, he said "yes."

Lincoln, for his part, had been searching for an opportunity to deliver an address laying out his vision for the Civil War. After the twin Union wins at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, there wasn't a lot of good news from the war front, and a weary populace was less and less certain that the costs of the war justified the benefits. On top of that, Lincoln had promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation at the start of 1863, and there were plenty of Northerners who did not want to fight that particular kind of war. This specific problem was directly responsible for the New York City Draft Riots, which took place from July 11-15, 1863 (and were put down in part, incidentally, by troops that had fought at Gettysburg).

Lincoln thought the cemetery dedication, which was going to receive vast news coverage, was the ideal opportunity to share his thoughts on the war. He'd been working on a little something for several months, and he got it out and rolled up his sleeves and sweated over getting it just right. There is a silly urban legend that he casually tossed the address off while on the train trip to Gettyburg. That story may suggest "genius" but it's also nonsense. First, there are two known drafts of the address, plus notes, covering multiple months before November of 1863. Second, go get yourself a 19th-century quill pen and ink, and some 19th-century parchment paper, and then take a trip on a 19th-century train and try to do a little writing. Good luck with that. There is a reason that Thomas Edison observed that "genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

There are two other things we should note about Lincoln. The first is that while many presidents were lawyers by virtue of their education, he was a real, live attorney-at-law. He supported himself for more than two decades through his law practice, and he really put in the work, including lots and lots of writing. There is no way to become a good writer except through practice, and he had plenty of it. He undoubtedly had inherent talent, as well, and between that and his vast experience, he was the most skilled writer ever to occupy the White House. Only a few presidents—Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Barack Obama—are even in his ZIP Code (sorry, TR, but your Victorian prose was clunky and verbose; and FDR, because we know Louis Howe wrote your speeches for you; and JFK, because we know Ted Sorensen was the real writer of Profiles in Courage).

Second, Lincoln was not an educated man in the sense that he had little formal schooling (having grown up on the frontier, and without much money, he had little access to formal schooling, even if his parents had been so inclined). That said, he had enormous respect for education and a great interest in acquiring as much knowledge as was possible. He practically memorized the complete works of Shakespeare, along with the Bible. He knew his history, and he also studied the standard 19th-century texts on rhetoric and elocution.

The point is that Lincoln came to the task of writing the Gettysburg Address with several rather powerful arrows in his quiver. And he did not start with a blank canvas. In particular, the Address was heavily influenced by a text that was more than 2,000 years old, but was as familiar in Lincoln's time as the Gettysburg Address is in ours: Pericles' Funeral Oration. And we do mean heavily influenced. Not enough to be plagiarism, but enough that nobody in 1863 would have missed the parallels. Should you be interested in reading more on that point, this essay is pretty good, though even better is Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.

Lincoln arrived at Gettysburg the day before the ceremony, and made some final tweaks to the Address at Wills' house (David's, not Garry's), where he was staying the night. The next day, after Everett went on for two hours and over 13,000 words, Lincoln stepped to the podium to share just 272 words (well, approximately 272 words):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Note that the standard text of the Address is just a close approximation of what he said on that day. Because of Lincoln's propensity for editing and re-editing, and because he was also open to improvising a bit on the fly, there are at least half a dozen different transcriptions of the speech, each with slight variations. Since the technology to record voice wouldn't be invented until 1877, by the aforementioned Mr. Edison and his team, there's no way to verify precisely what was said on November 19, 1863.

As readers may well know, the crowd's reaction to the speech was muted. It was hard to hear Lincoln, and the Address was short enough that some people didn't fully realize he had commenced speaking until he was almost done. Even though Lincoln had a well-rehearsed habit of speaking slowly, he was still only at the podium for 2 minutes. Famously, the President thought he'd blown it, describing his performance as a "flat failure." However, the guy best suited to evaluate a speech like this, and the guy in the best position to actually hear Lincoln, was Everett. And his review was: "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

Everett had the right of it, of course. Rhetorically, you're seeing a master craftsman at work when you read that speech. Intellectually, the Address is a brilliant fusing of the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. No longer is the goal of the war to restore the country as it was. It is to secure a "new birth of freedom"—that is, a country that actually lives up to the notion that "all men are created equal"—white and Black. Lincoln never publicly advocated for full racial equality, which would have been impractical for a politician of national stature. We'll never know for sure what he felt in his heart of hearts, but later in the war, he did publicly endorse citizenship for Black veterans.

That Lincoln was not a proto-Martin Luther King Jr., and could not possibly be given his political context, should not obscure how bold the Gettysburg Address really was. Not only is Lincoln calling for unity, he's including Black Americans (and, by extension, other non-white Americans) in that call. We're not trying to be hagiographic here, but it's one of the boldest and most radical speeches, relative to the era, that a U.S. president has ever delivered.

And guess what? The reviews were stellar. Oh, there were certainly Lincoln-hating newspapers that would have panned the speech even if it was, well, the Gettysburg Address. But beyond those, the President was heaped with much praise, as editors across the country recognized the historic nature of the occasion. The Union's war effort got a shot in the arm just when it most needed it, and that was the bridge to calling Ulysses S. Grant east (March 2, 1864), and then the commencement of the Eastern and Western military campaigns that would bring the Confederacy to its knees, with the South's fate effectively sealed on Sept. 2, 1864, just less than a year after the Address.

There is much in this narrative that is, by all indications, anathema to the people who lead the modern Republican Party, including respect for knowledge and education and expertise, willingness to put in the hard work of governing, an interest in national unity (recall that in addition to the general theme of the speech, the key players in the story were a Republican, a Democrat and an independent), and the notion that "unity" and "freedom" include all Americans and not just some. Meanwhile, perhaps telling this story helps shed a small amount of light on the challenges that Joe Biden faces as he wrestles with Ukraine/Israel, and as he tried to find just the right words to rally the American public to his banner.

One last note: This post is already really long, and the Gettysburg Address is arguably the greatest political quote ever uttered. What else can stand up to it? So, we'll run another set of quotations on Tuesday.

Have a good weekend, all! (Z)

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