"Government of the people, by the people, for the people." : Saviour of the Union; Emanicpator of the Slaves; and tutelary deity of the American Republic: Abraham Lincoln.
LINCOLN WILL BE HERE in eleven days. Already over twenty million Americans have seen Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie. Critics report audiences rendered mute by a combination of reverence and awe. Amidst all the tribulations occasioned by a faltering economy and an increasingly rancorous society, Americans are taking time out to be reminded that the American republic still stands as humanity’s most remarkable experiment.
The rest of the world may laugh at America’s excess and sneer at her lack of sophistication but the truth remains that the American republic is an enterprise imbued with the highest moral purpose. Abraham Lincoln understood this better than any other American President.
On his way to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863, Lincoln jotted down the 271 words that still stand as not only his greatest speech but also the most succinct encapsulation of the democratic impulse ever penned. Resonant with the rhetorical power of Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible (large tracts of which Lincoln had committed to memory) his Gettysburg Address effortlessly mixes the universal and particular aspects of the struggle in which Americans were then engaged.
He begins by directly linking the conflict whose victims they had gathered to commemorate with the ideals of the American Revolution of 1776.
“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.”
With characteristic humility, Lincoln then turns to the men whose deaths have transformed that purely speculative test into something approaching a blood pact: not only with those who began the American enterprise, but also with those future generations of Americans whose task it would be to preserve and extend it.
In what must surely rank as one of the great perorations of American oratory, Lincoln then concluded his address with these simple, but unforgettable, words:
“[W]e 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.”
It is easy to forget that when Lincoln’s revolutionary formula was proclaimed over Gettysburg’s blood-soaked battlefield, the United States of America stood alone as the only nation among all the empires and kingdoms of the Earth that was even rhetorically committed to the democratic ideal. The aristocratic oligarchy which ruled Britain (and would have recognised the slave-owning Confederacy had the Battle of Gettysburg gone the other way) had, under great political pressure, consented to enfranchise its middle class in 1832. Full manhood suffrage would not be achieved in the United Kingdom until 1918. In Democracy’s second home, France, Napoleon’s nephew had proclaimed an authoritarian “Second Empire”.
Lincoln understood that a Confederate victory would re-admit British and French imperialism (Napoleon III was already eyeing Mexico) to the North American continent. How long a savagely truncated USA, hemmed in by unfriendly competitors to the north and south, could have preserved its democratic institutions is one of history’s imponderables. One cannot, however, escape the conclusion that the sentiments expressed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address were those of a man who understood that what was a stake in the American Civil War was nothing less than the completion of the American Revolution or, if the Union’s arms failed, its eventual repudiation.
Heroic Role: Daniel Day Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's acclaimed movie.
Spielberg’s movie takes as its subject the final months of Lincoln’s presidency, during which he cajoles, inveigles and just plain threatens Congress into embracing a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. It’s a brutal but ultimately inspiring depiction of politics as it is played by politicians who still believe that great things are possible when men are encouraged to heed what Lincoln called “the better angels” of their nature.
Perhaps this explains the peculiarly serious mood in which Americans are viewing Spielberg’s vivid recreation of Lincoln’s presidency. As if the cinematic amplification of America’s revolutionary history and its revelation of the scale of the moral objectives pursued by its protagonists has provided welcome confirmation that human-beings, flawed though they be, may yet contrive to realise in their earthly institutions the uncompromising injunctions of Heaven.
Those revolutionary echoes were always going to be strengthened by Barack Obama’s presidency, and his re-election has only given them an additional boost in volume. Slavery and inequality were ever the serpent in America’s Eden. Lincoln knew it and by the sheer force of his will and the prodigious quality of his political talent he inspired his fellow Americans to ensure that neither would find permanent refuge in the garden of the Great Republic.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 January 2013.