The Stuff of Democratic Life
By Allen Guelzo
On Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the dedication remarks at the opening ceremonies of a cemetery for soldiers of the Civil War in Gettysburg, Pa. This “Gettysburg Address” — a gem-like model of conciseness, passion and political eloquence — quickly became a fixed feature of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers and triple-decker Fourth of July orations, even the soundtrack of the first “talking” motion picture in 1922. It was read once again to dedicate a block of burnt earth in Manhattan during the solemn first anniversary of 9/11 at Ground Zero.
Lincoln wrote a great many other memorable speeches, from his two inaugural addresses to the proclamation that, a week after the Gettysburg Address, made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Why was the Gettysburg speech so much more important? The answer would be easier if his words had not become so worn with familiarity. Time has done more than just heal the wounds of the Civil War. It has grown moss over prose that captured, in a shorter compass and with greater power than any others, the three fundamental challenges of the American experiment.
In 1863, the United States was the only significant democracy in the world. The French Revolution had drowned itself in blood; the democratic uprisings of the 1820s and 1840s had been easily and successfully repressed by kings and emperors; and everywhere, it was power and hierarchy rather than liberty and equality which seemed the best guarantee of peace and plenty. Americans remained the one people who defined themselves by a natural proposition, that all men are created equal, so that no one was born with a superior entitlement to command.
But this republic of equal citizens had two basic weaknesses. The first was its tolerance of slavery, which drew the line of race across the line of equality. The second weakness was the question of authority in a democracy. In a society where every citizen’s opinion carried equal weight, decisions would have to be made by majority rule. But a citizen whose opinion carries such weight might find it difficult to submit to the countervailing vote of a majority which thinks differently, and the result is likely to be a simple truculent refusal to go along. Refusals make for resistance, and resistance makes for civil war. Is there, Lincoln asked in 1861, some deep flaw in popular government, some weird centripetal force, which inevitably condemns popular government to whirl itself into pieces “and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth”?
To that question, every king and autocrat in 1861 — and every fuehrer, duce and president-for-life since — has answered, smirkingly, yes. And the American Civil War looked like the chief evidence that this was so. Which is why, as Lincoln looked out across the thousands who had gathered on that November day, it seemed to him that what he was viewing was more than just another noteworthy battlefield. It had fallen to him to argue that the Civil War signaled not a failure, but a test, to determine once and for all whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
We pass this test, Lincoln said, not by dedicating cemeteries, but by dedicating ourselves. That dedication lies first in seeing that equality is an imposition of self-restraint. It means refusing to lay upon the backs of others the burdens we do not wish laid on our own. Slavery was an outrage on the notion of equality, not just because it treated members of a different race as unequal, but because it allowed one race to exploit another without any restraint at all. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” Lincoln explained in 1858. “This expresses my idea of democracy.” Popular government is not about what we want, or about our demands for ourselves, but what we should not want and not demand of others.
Dedication lies, second, in the enforcement of self-restraint. Democracy is a discipline. One cannot opt out on the plea of liberty whenever the political score goes against us. The Southern secessionists imagined that they were protecting their liberty by seceding from the Union, but they were in fact negating it. Secession, Lincoln argued, was the essence of anarchy, not liberty, since the only liberty the secessionists had in mind was the liberty to do what they pleased, without restraint, and to people whom they deemed unequal. Against that, a democracy must take up the sword, or cease to be a democracy at all.
But dedication also comes, third, in understanding how to sustain a fervor for democracy’s defense. It was the complaint of Francis Fukuyama that the triumph of democracy had only managed to produce a “last man” who had no other reason for being free than the satisfaction of his own interests. It was Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg which invested the triumph of democracy with a transcendent meaning, as a good based on natural law rather than on personal comfort. It was because these honored dead were witnesses to that kind of democracy that we could take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.
The turn of the 9/11 ceremonies to the Gettysburg Address was instinctively correct. But Lincoln’s words are more than just a tonic for crises. Self-restraint, self-enforcement and the recollection that democracy has a transcendent core arching far above our poor power to add or detract — these are the stuff of democratic life, and the Gettysburg Address is the reminder of Lincoln’s prescription for government of the people, by the people and for the people. If we forget it, it may be because we have forgotten all the other things that democracy demands.
Mr. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and the author, inter alia, of “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America” (Simon and Schuster, 2004).