Sunday, November 24, 2013

H. L. Menkin on the Gettysburg Address

I've been emailing back and forth with 2cents, who says that I've been too harsh on Abraham Lincoln.  I must confess that I'm not the only one, and among those others is the great H. L. Menken.  He wrote a scathing analysis of the address, perched about the same number of years removed from Appomattox as we are from V-E Day.
The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.
RTWT, particularly the bit about historians turning him into a plaster saint.


Chickenmom said...

It's a damn shame that the true history is not taught nor truly acknowledged. The war was NOT over slavery; it was over individual State's Rights. Lincoln didn't give a hoot about the slaves; it was going to end soon anyway. He wanted control of the states that could produce cotton, food and trade. The North had the big cities and manufacturing. Lincoln needed the South to feed and supply workers for the North. If the Southern states seceded, the North would collapse. Plus trade between the South and Europe would by-pass the Washington coffers. And even back then, that was a big no-no.

Chris said...

What Chickenmom said.

By my lights, you are being "fair", not harsh, to Lincoln.

Differ said...

Reading the Menken article in the Roswell Tap enjoying a Terrapin ale between engagements....must meet up for beer.

Borepatch said...

Differ, I'd enjoy that.

Weetabix said...

I become more and more convinced that anything that comes out of a politician's mouth is exactly opposite of the truth. Just flip it, and you'll have the truth. See, for example, Affordable Care Act.