In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” This, I trust everyone knows, is the inscription on the back wall of the Lincoln Memorial, visible above the awe-inspiring statue of our greatest president, greeting us and inducing reverence as we enter what is, in my opinion, the finest public building anywhere. On facing walls, to left and right, are carved in stone Lincoln’s two greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s personal contributions to his enduring memory. The world may little note nor long remember what exactly happened at Gettysburg, but it will never forget what Lincoln said there and on the second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office.
The Gettysburg Address has been memorized, recited, and admired. Countless scholars have discussed its rhetorical devices, literary merit, and political reception. But few have attended to the thought of Lincoln’s speech and the deeper purposes that it serves. People do recognize that this funeral oration, honoring Union dead in the battle that marked a turning point in the war against Southern rebellion, was even more clearly a summons to the living to prosecute to victorious conclusion a war that, despite the victory at Gettysburg, was not going well enough: “the great task remaining before us” is, first and foremost, the winning of the war. But few people see that the speech offers Lincoln’s reinterpretation of the American Founding, his understanding of the war as atest of that founding, and his own characterization of this nation now being reborn through passing that bloody test. Central to Lincoln’s declaration of America reborn is his own new, as-it-were baptismal, teaching on the relation between liberty and equality, crucial to our new birth of freedom. In this talk, I would like to offer some evidence for these large claims.
The express rhetorical purpose of the speech is clearly evident on the surface. The occasion is the dedication of a Union cemetery at Gettysburg for the burial of the nearly 5,300 Union fallen (killed in 2 days; another 17,000 Union soldiers were wounded; 27,000 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded). Lincoln acknowledges that, “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” But he is much less interested in dedicating a patch of earth to honor the dead than he is in inspiring his listeners, “us the living,” who are—despite dispiriting loss and grief—“to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” to “the great task remaining before us,” namely, victory in the war and the restoration of the Union, now on a more solid foundation. But it is the outer frame of the speech, and especially its beginning and its end, that bespeaks Lincoln’s larger purpose: to create for future generations an interpretation of the war, and especially the war’s relation to both the once “new nation,” brought forth by “our fathers” and “conceived in liberty,” and “this nation,” which, through the sacrifice of war and our dedication, “shall have a new birth of freedom.” Before turning to those passages at the beginning and the end, I need to say something about the relation of this speech to a concern that had preoccupied Lincoln for at least 25 years.