Friday, November 22, 2013

The Majesty of the Gettysburg Address

Author's Note: I sent this to Counterpunch as a written rebuttal, but heard no response from them and can only assume I failed to satisfy their editorial needs or standards. More's the pity. Link to the orignal piece is here: The Frauds of the Gettysburg Address

In his “The Frauds of the Gettysburg Address” (Counterpunch, November 18, 2013), Kirkpatrick Sale has slandered a great figure in world history and a great document in the history of human freedom and tradition of rhetoric. Abraham Lincoln is long dead and buried and so it remains to us the living to defend his legacy and to consecrate his contributions to our collective experience.

Sale’s piece is so rife with half-truth, innuendo and outright untruth that one hardly knows where to begin, as a sentence-by-sentence refutation would prove numbing to the readers. Because he alleges that there are three “monstrous frauds” contained within the Address proper, perhaps one should begin with Sale’s second paragraph:

First, what Lincoln did at Gettysburg was to create a brand new purpose for the war that the North was fighting against the Confederacy. No longer was it to be for the preservation of the union, as he had declared many times in the previous two years, nor for the restoration of forts and armories and customhouses, as he declared in his declaration of war, but now it was to be for the banners of equality and liberty that he has unfurled eleven months earlier in the cause of black emancipation.
Most serious historians of the Civil War, among them James McPherson, Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton, agree that the brand-new purpose for the war had been fashioned about a year earlier with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation following the Battle of Antietam Creek, a battle that saw Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the north decisively rebuffed and thus a much-needed victory of sorts for the Union. Perhaps Sale can argue that Lincoln is giving voice to that new purpose for the war at Gettysburg, but Lincoln himself says his purpose there is to dedicate the battleground and to consecrate the memories of those who suffered and died there:

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.

Sale next charges Lincoln with distorting history, because Lincoln says that the nation was formed “four score and seven years ago” and was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In his slavish insistence upon historical trivia, to wit, that the nation was actually not formed until 1783 or arguably 1789, Sale tries to indict Lincoln for fraud, because Lincoln indulges in literary license. Perhaps Sale would have been happier -- though the world be impoverished – had Lincoln said “Three score and fourteen years ago” rather than “Four score and seven years ago.” No matter to Sale that most Americans then and now date the founding of our nation to July 4, 1776. To Sale, Lincoln’s use of literary license constitutes fraud.

But Sale elevates sophistry to a whole new level when he adds to his indictment of Lincoln by saying “Moreover, that Constitution, and the nation that it created, had nothing (emphasis Sale’s) to do with being ‘dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’” From niggling pedant, Sale jumps to over-generalizing cant. “Nothing?” Really? No matter that the Declaration of Independence says its signers “hold these truths to be self evident . . . that all men are created equal.” Furthermore, Sale elides the most salient phrase in the same Preamble to the Constitution upon which he relies for his indictment. That phrase? “To form a more perfect union.” See, that’s what Gettysburg and the entire Civil War was about, forming a ‘more perfect union.’ That’s why men were willing to rush to delay the advance of the Confederates through Gettysburg proper on the first day, to hold Cemetery Ridge on the second day and to remain steadfast in the face of Pickett’s Charge on the third day. That’s why they were willing to shed blood and die. To form a more perfect union. Because it’s a process that’s never done but always in a state of being done.

Sale next presumes to read the minds of those brave Union soldiers when he says a “new birth of freedom . . . was the farthest thing from their minds.” Some joined to defend the principle of the inviolability of the Union, some joined to combat the abomination of human bondage. But my guess is that most of those Iowa and Wisconsin farm boys joined up to get away from the drudgery and boredom of farm life and see a bit of the world. That takes nothing away from what they actually did at Gettysburg. My point is that we can’t know with any certainty why soldiers joined up. Nonetheless, Sale doesn’t pass up a chance to slander not just Lincoln but those brave soldiers:

They were presumably fighting for the Union, or because they had been ordered to, but they were all white men and they had no notion of giving their lives for a world of free blacks.
Leaving aside the very real movement of Abolitionists, some of whom without question filled the Union ranks on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, Sale ignores what any veteran of combat will tell you: soldiers fight and bleed for their fellow soldiers, not for grand abstractions. Not for saving the union, not for abolishing slavery, not for states’ rights (on the Confederate side). No, soldiers fight, bleed and die for their brothers and sisters at the small-unit level. Again, this takes nothing away from what they achieved at Gettysburg that July day so many years ago.

Sale makes his third and final pillar of fraud center around the peroration when Lincoln promises that government “of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The fact that Lincoln himself had been elected a mere three years earlier should suffice to demolish Sale’s claim that the United States was not a radically new experiment in self-government. Are we simply supposed to ignore Lincoln’s biography, his rise from humble origins and destitution, in order to allow Sale’s point to stand? Lincoln sought through his address to contrast the radical American experiment with the decadent European aristocracies and monarchies that polluted the Western historical landscape. In so doing, he reminded his listeners what was at stake, the motives of individual Union and Confederate soldiers notwithstanding. Representative self-government was and is the issue.

Sale calls it ‘an entirely fraudulent address.’ We shall have to leave it to the readers now and in posterity to decide who is perpetrating the fraud here and who is advancing the cause of human freedom. But it comes as no great surprise that five score years later, Martin Luther King Jr. would begin his “I Have a Dream Speech” with words that evoke Lincoln’s Address. King listened and understood then, as we too must listen and understand now, that Lincoln speaks not just to listeners dead some 150 years but to us today, right here and now: “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.” There is much that remains unfinished, much that remains imperfect and imperfected in our union. But advance it they did so bravely and advance it must we still.

No comments:

Post a Comment