Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, is a historian and author of “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” In her recent article - 150 Years after the Gettysburg Address, Is government by the people in trouble? - Dr. Faust offers an eloquent and quite moving exploration of the context in which Abraham Lincoln transformed his earlier “hopeful” rhetoric into the more hardened sense of passion that spoke to his contemporaries’ aching hearts about “dedication” and “resolve” — a determination that something more must come out of all their shared sacrifice than mere preservation of a national union.
Seared by fire and blood, the newly emerging version of the United States of America would have to be something finer. In the spirit of a “new birth of freedom,” it must forever aspire to be better, then better still.
That sense of resolution is currently at stake, as we confront the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address – widely considered to be the most impactful speech — (certainly on a per-word basis) — in the last several centuries. Greatly noted and long remembered, it has been compared by some (including myself) to the inspiring “funeral oration” of the great Athenian leader, Pericles. (As conveyed to us by Thucydides.)
Only with this vital difference. Both men died before completing their tasks. But, unlike those who followed Pericles, we appear to have been ready, after Lincoln, to forge ahead in victory and determination. His words, burning in our hearts, continued making a difference at crucial moments for six succeeding generations, so that the Great Experiment thrived and survived every intervening crisis.
Across the succeeding four score and seventy years, each of those generations found itself disturbed, provoked, challenged not only by foreign dangers, domestic ructions or tsunamis of both immigration and seismic technological change, but also by torments of conscience, as each generational wave gradually matured enough to recognize what its parents could not…
… such as the litany of crimes that had served as bloody mortar, sealing the nation’s foundation in a gritty blend of both hope and sin. Or the waste of human potential that (across more than 6000 years) had dogged and hampered every society that ever pre-judged vast numbers of distinct individuals, based on accidents of birth or gender, class or race. Or how to deal with the alluring drug of empire, when Pax Americana faced the same temptations that turned earlier great powers into tyrants –
– a dilemma that we handled – if not perfectly – then less-horribly than any other nation that was ever so-tempted. In part because of the moral ember that Abraham Lincoln sealed into our hearts, smoldering there to remind us that democracy and wealth and power and even freedom become meaningless, unless they accompany a fierce ambition. To aspire. To become better. Together.
That is my brief rumination upon this 150 year-old epochal masterpiece of sadness and solace, of courage and resolve, of dedication to our common project, our shared experiment, our unfinished work called America.
== Oh, but it is always in danger ==
For, now we Americans are engaged in a new phase of civil war. Not yet violent to any significant degree and we can pray to almighty providence that things will stay that way. But there is no question that forces are at work upon this continent, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived, can long endure.
Look at the political map of our bitter, partisan divide, and just try telling yourself that it’s not the very same struggle. Not over slavery or freedom or states’ rights, which — for all their importance — were surface matters of dispute, symptoms of a fissure that plunges deeper than even those great matters. So deep, because America and Americans seem divided by differing, incompatible dreams.
One side of our national character hungers for change and tomorrow. To treat the future – the range of possible futures — as ambition-attracting terra incognita, across which our children will explore and stride, better than we are in every way, even if that means repudiating many of our now-unclear assumptions and errors! Preparing those much-better generations for a boundless future is our dedicated proposition. Our mission.
But there is an opposing passion — the temptation to wallow in nostalgia, romanticism, sanctimony, authority and the comforting rigidity-of-caste that dominated nearly every other civilization, across 6000 years. It was called feudalism and humanity’s greatest heroes fought to liberate us from that beastly, limiting and dismally stupid way of life.
Those who would restore the feudal yoke have always been with us, gathering forces, conniving, aiming persuasive dogma-incantations at both extremes of the vile “left-right political axis.” These would-be lords (whether aristocrats or commissars) are spurred by deeply human impulses, arising largely out of male cojones. Impulses that whisper – “You could be a lord, build harems, dominate. Your wealth and power were all self-earned! They arose from inherent superiority! Never imagine that mere luck might have played a role. Or the coordinated creativity of a great nation, or the brilliance of a whole people and civilization. You owe nothing back. The sheep owe you everything.”
Boringly predictable, heard in every ancient palace, this rationalization propels ingrate-lords who call themselves “job-creators” while creating few jobs, except for the propagandists that they hire en masse to rail against Abraham Lincoln’s high aspiration. Or against scientists, teachers, professors, civil servants, journalists, economists, skilled laborers, law professionals, diplomats, medical doctors — every profession of ambitious, forward-looking knowledge and skill.
But one core thing is under attack, more than any other. That is the very idea of shared endeavor, of joint action, of common projects that are mediated-by and consensus-chosen through the process of politics that we call “government”… this very idea is denounced as anathema, as repulsive, as inherently evil.
How far has this mania gone? So far that even members of the United States military officer corps are experiencing real fear for the republic that they love. To which they dedicated their full measure of devotion.
== The passing generation of heroes ==
As happened in 1861, a major fraction of our countrymen have been talked into suckling nostalgic future-rejection and caste-romanticism. Enraged, they’ll fight for New Confederacy lords whose “plantations” now span Wall Street, cyberspace and ten million secret accounts in foreign private-banking havens.
How ironic, for this coincides with the passing of the Greatest Generation — men and women who fought down the curse of Hitlerism, who overcame the First Great Depression, who embraced the plan of Marshall, Truman, Acheson and Eisenhower to contain communism peacefully until its fever broke… without nuclear annihilation. All so that their unique nation might live.
A generation that created the mighty American middle class, amid a burst of entrepreneurial productivity so fantastic that their children could afford to take on ancient evils that all others had taken for granted, like racism, sexism and environmental blindness. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled in those mighty causes shared one trait more common than any other. The Greatest Generation adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt — once compared lovingly and in all ways to Lincoln — but who now one third of our fellow citizens have been talked into equating with Satan Incarnate.
This ongoing struggle is not (despite propaganda) about ‘left-versus-right.’ Not when entrepreneurship, small business, federal fiscal responsibility and the middle class always do far better under democrats than under the Republican Party. We could fill page after page with clear evidence that the father of capitalism and the “First Liberal” — Adam Smith — would today be a democrat.
No. When the rhetoric has devolved into a universal and blanket spite toward all government, in principle, and when the greatest sin — as perceived by one third of our fellow citizens — is to even speak of compromise, negotiation, deliberation or an agile freedom from constraining dogma, then we have come full circle.
== For we, the living… ==
One hundred and fifty years after Abraham Lincoln urged our predecessors to advance the unfinished work which the heroes of Gettysburg so nobly advanced, we should read his words again, letting them roll in our heads and off our tongues. And then we must rise to our feet, in similar, steely resolve that the epochal achievements of those who came before us shall not have been in vain.
Oh, this phase of the American Civil War will end as the others did, with victory for Union and moderation and freedom, plus continuation of our ambition to forge ahead. Mostly as individuals and families and self-formed teams…
…but also with great projects that we choose by “governmental” processes that — even when filthy-political — still often launch us forward. To conquer polio and build internets. To educate one and all. To create the world’s finest universities. To span the continent with highways and dams and electricity… then to preserve much of the rest for future generations. To probe ahead, with the tools of science, for mistakes to catch and solve in the nick of time. To keep the world’s longest and greatest peace. To step onto the surface of the Moon. To aim for the stars.
But first, it will take resolve — stopping those who would end the Experiment amid dogma and rage. We intend to welcome them back, with charity for all, when this latest fever breaks! Abe Lincoln showed us how.
But till then, it must simply be stopped. The oligarchy-financed attempted putsch. And the nostalgic-romantic lunacy that makes so many citizens of a great and free republic screech their hateful vow –
– that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall perish from the earth.