If you’ve clicked on this blog post then there’s a good chance you’ll already know that today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s delivery of his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the memorial to those who died at the three-day Pennsylvania battle in July 1863. Even by the fabulous standards of American oratory, it’s a corker. Here it is, and below that are a few uncharacteristically brief words by me about a few lesser-known aspects of the great speech’s intellectual provenance.
“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.”
[There are actually several slightly different text versions of the speech, but the above is the most commonly cited one, and is the one inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and on display in the Lincoln Room of the White House. It’s named after Colonel Alexander Bliss, who asked Lincoln for a copy to use when fundraising for soldiers and for whom Lincoln wrote and signed it in 1864.]
What’s well enough known about the Gettysburg Address is its invocation of the US Declaration of Independence. Four score and seven years ago in 1863 was 1776, when indeed the Continental Congress brought forth a new nation in a declaration that said indeed that all men are created equal and entitled to liberty. Also: life and the pursuit of happiness. What’s less well known, at least today (if not in 1863), is the speech’s invocation of the US Constitution (drafted in 1787, ratified in 1788, and put into effect in 1789). And the invocation of the Constitution in the speech in turn is less well known because what’s also less well known is Lincoln’s intellectual and rhetorical debt to a US Senator from Massachusetts named Daniel Webster (1782-1852), who made a then-very-famous speech also about the Union during a controversy that took place a generation earlier.
Briefly, the Nullification Controversy began in 1828 with the passing of a federal tariff on imported goods, raising pre-existing tariffs dating to 1816 to 25-50 percent, designed to protect budding American manufacturers. Southerners, South Carolinians especially, objected to paying higher prices raised by this 1828 “Tariff of Abominations” that effectively advantaged northerners, especially New Englanders. The controversy reached crisis-point in 1832 when a special convention South Carolina “nullified” the tariff within the state, and President Andrew Jackson sent gunboats into Charleston harbour to uphold federal law if necessary. No shots were fired on this occasion, as Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky brokered a compromise whereby the tariff was gradually lowered in subsequent years.
Some historians, notably William Freehling (Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836), argue (entirely convincingly imo) that this controversy was less about the tariff and more about South Carolinians exploring ways that they might in the future defend the institution of slavery. And indeed during the long controversy they developed the substance of constitutional theories they would employ to justify secession from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln (who they saw as a threat to slavery) as President in 1860. In 1830, for example, Robert Hayne of South Carolina argued in the US Senate for “state compact theory”—that the individual states retained their original sovereignty, that the federal Union was a mere “compact” between the sovereign states and not itself a sovereign entity, that the federal government was a mere “agent” of the states, that the states could therefore “interpose” their sovereign authority against the federal government, and that the states could thus nullify a federal law or even indeed secede from the Union. In two extended responses to Hayne, Daniel Webster made a rather different argument about the nature of the federal Union. For Webster, the states were not sovereign at all; the people were. And it was the people who, in the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787, had created the Union. The US Constitution, after all, begins with the words “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The states could therefore absolutely not interpose against the people’s sovereign authority as constitutionally expressed through the federal government. Indeed in a speech of January 26-27 1830 known as the “Second Response to Hayne”, Webster said the following: “It is, Sir, the people's Constitution, the people's government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.” Lincoln’s particular formulation was “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but it’s clear that Lincoln was borrowing.
Webster ended his responses to Hayne with the following rhetorical flourish. “When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shine on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as "What is all this worth?" nor those other words of delusion and folly, "Liberty first and Union afterwards"; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, - Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
Webster died in October 1852, and while he lived to see the Union under even greater threat than it had been when he made his great speech, he didn’t live to see the Civil War. But in playing his part in saving the Union that Webster spoke so eloquently for, Lincoln more than paid his dues to his rhetorical forefather.