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Lincoln’s words to honor loss spark debate and dedication to American freedom

November 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address articulated a powerful message 150 years ago that endures today. How did a speech with so few words come to effect such great meaning in American history? Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard University and Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University join Jeffrey Brown to offer reflections.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now, Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, historian and author, whose books include “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” and NewsHour regular presidential historian Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University. He’s formerly director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois.

And, Drew Faust, I want to start with you.

By the fall of 1863, the toll, the suffering, it was all very clear. Set the context for thinking about this speech. What was Lincoln out to do in that moment?

DREW GILPIN FAUST, Harvard University: Well, Lincoln was out to commemorate. He was invited to come and say appropriate words to dedicate the loss of life that had been so extraordinary in the three days of battle at Gettysburg the preceding summer.

And this was a loss of life that motivated the representatives of Northern states who had soldiers die in that battle to come together and acquire land on which to build a cemetery. And so Lincoln was coming to dedicate that cemetery in a ceremony that included other speeches and music and so forth on that November day in 1863.

When he arrived in the town, it’s important to remember there was still unburied bodies piled in coffins in the street. And so the aura of death was still very present even all those months after the July battle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Richard, how do we — 150 years later, how should we see the speech in that moment? Can we put ourselves back there at all?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Sure.

We have been doing that for 150 years in a real sense.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, Dr. Faust is absolutely right.

Lincoln came to dedicate the field of honor that had been fought over, and at the same time he came to define the war, in some ways to define the nation. One way he did that was to begin with a history lesson. Fourscore and seven years ago refers to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian ideal, the egalitarian ideal that all men are created equal.

Lincoln is telling his countrymen that the ideal of America, the egalitarian ideal of America existed before it was codified in the Constitution. That’s critical. That’s absolutely essential, because that’s the America in a very real sense that Lincoln was rededicating his countrymen when he talked about a new birth of freedom.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Drew Faust, pick up on that, because there are — obvious questions 150 years later is, how did this speech with so few words came to have such meeting and what is the meeting?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: The speech is powerful, in part, I think because it’s so direct and poetic, and the words carry so much meaning in such a short space.

And it’s often said, in memories of the speech, that, oh, no one liked it or it wasn’t recognized. And that’s not true. It was heard by those in attendance at that moment to be a powerful, powerful message. And it was received by the newspapers very soon after it was delivered as something of great importance.

So why was it so important? It was so important because, as Richard said, it harked back to the past, but it also called on Americans to think about the future. This is a new birth of freedom. And that, I think, is tied both to what had become a goal of the war, the ending of slavery, but also to the sense that the United States had lost so much, that all these deaths had been so costly, that the nation had to rededicate itself to making sure that the American project moved forward to open freedom in a world that seemed to be increasingly hostile to democracy.

The kind of things that had been going on in Europe in the wake of the revolutions of 1848 showed a real backing away on the part of much of the rest of the world from any kind of democratic ideals. And so Lincoln is asking the United States to recognize what cost it’s paid and to make sure that it advances this American project.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Richard, you said in your first answer, we have been having this discussion for 150 years.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, for 150 years, including vividly, as we sit here, Americans have been debating, what does freedom mean?

For some people, freedom is something achieved through government. Think of the social safety net. Think of the civil rights movement. Think of women’s rights. Think of women belatedly getting the vote. For others, freedom is freedom from government. Ironically enough, go back to Thomas Jefferson, which was another Jefferson ideal of the least government being the best government.

So this debate Lincoln initiated. But what is beyond debate — at least if you Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg — is, what the war is about, what the country is about, it is about government of, by and for the people. It’s about the ideal that seemingly ordinary people are capable of governing themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Drew Faust, how would you sort of define the discussion, the debate that has happened over 150 years up to today, the relevance of that speech?

DREW GILPIN FAUST: I believe that the Gettysburg address, by defining our national purposes, gives us certain obligations, in a sense, as citizens to make sure that the costs that our ancestors and predecessors paid is one that we still devote ourselves to making valuable, to honoring, in the way we honor not just the dead, but we must honor what they fought for and why they died.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, what do you tell students? What do you think they should know about this now?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, the great irony is that the address may be more appreciated overseas.

It has been thrown in the face of every tyrant for 150 years. But you’re right. It — we can never hear it too often. We can never explore its relevance too much. And this is one anniversary, it seems to me, that ought to unite all Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Norton Smith, Drew Gilpin Faust, thank you both very much.