Monday, November 19, 2018

The Gettysburg Address at 153

This is the 153rd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches in American history.  The great Baltimore newspaperman H. L. Mencken wrote the definitive analysis of that even, back in the 1920s.  Back then, the war was still in living memory, and so he had some perspective that we now lack.  And while the Lincoln hagiography was even then beginning to flower, it had not entirely replaced history as it had been lived.

You can - and should - read his full thoughts here, but this is the key bit:
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.
I've been pretty clear for quite some time that I think that Lincoln was the worst President in the Republic's history, and the war was a disaster for both North and South.


chris said...

155th anniversary.


Old NFO said...

Still meaningful!

waepnedmann said...

Lee should have listened to Longstreet.

Borepatch said...

Chris, I put that number in as a test for my readers. Well done. ;-)

Waepnedmann, you bet. And Stuart shouldn't have taken off to showboat around the Union army. Either of those would have changed the outcome completely.

LSP said...

Borepatch -- I'll repost that. Well found.