Yesterday in 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address, a speech commonly considered one of the most recognized and commonly recited pieces of English text.
Truthfully, Lincoln’s oratory served as an erroneous reinvention of the union that conflicted greatly with the widespread understanding reached during the time of the founding generation. While Lincoln declared that in 1776 our fathers “brought forth a new nation,” they did not. In reality, no union of states existed until the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781. That union was rearranged in 1788, through the Constitution’s ratification by nine requisite member states.
In 1776, independence was declared as a common cause of the states, and the Declaration of Independence noted that “Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” The states were compared to the “State of Great Britain,” making it obvious they existed and functioned and independent entities. Prior to this declaration, two states, Virginia and Rhode Island, and various other regions declared independence prior to the adoption of the famous document and the corresponding Lee resolution that severed all ties with Britain.
Contrary to Lincoln’s perception, the American states functioned as drastically different entities, through the War for Independence and long into the 1780s. Instead of the nationalist dictum, the Declaration of Independence was in fact a declaration of secession that enumerated the reasons for which the Lee Resolution of July 2 passed the Continental Congress. That generation staked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors on these tenets, not the creation of a national union as Lincoln espoused.
Lincoln honored “brave men” in the collective; he spoke of a “nation” several times but avoided reference to the federal framework the Constitution acknowledged. He associated the war with an obligatory religious battle, using verbatim biblical language and allusions, and ascribed a sacred association to the union which had not existed before.
Many opposed Lincoln’s desire to suppress northern dissent, rejected wide-ranging conscription efforts, disavowed the forced closure of northern press, protested the suspension of habeas corpus, and deemed the war as wholly unnecessary. Without question, his deeds failed to persuade many that a cause that left about 800,000 dead was a glorious one. Still, Lincoln suggested that the union men that died upon the battlefield “nobly advanced” his vision for the union – the ultimate centralization and nationalization of political power. To Lincoln, the men “gave their lives that the nation might live.”
If Lincoln looked elsewhere in the document he referenced to bolster his claims, he would have recognized Jefferson’s adamant defense of secession and self-government. Lacking a government that protects the lives, liberty, and property of its citizens, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.”
While Lincoln’s speech is possibly the most memorable American exposition in the contemporary, it failed to appreciate the original maxims widely considered to be inherent to the American republic. Lincoln conceived of the union as a sacred, superlative, national state, whereas Jefferson considered it as a utilitarian, federally-oriented league of states.