A few days ago America remembered the speech delivered by President Lincoln at the soldiers’ cemetery in Gettysburg a little over four months after the Union army victory. Editorial writers and TV journalists rightly praised the address for its elegance and brevity. The praise was appropriate, but I think most commentators missed Lincoln’s main point — one that has continuing relevance today.
The speech was not a general call for patriotism or an argument for expanded equality. “Created equal” was not Lincoln’s conclusion; it was his premise, one he found in the Declaration of Independence. Our “new nation” was radically different from the countries of Europe. Because all men were created equal, it followed that all men must count the same in government. (The 13th Amendment and women’s suffrage would have to wait a little longer.) Lincoln’s point was that ours was no government by a king or a body of aristocrats exercising inherited political power. “Virtual representation” of the Americans by English lords in Parliament was a fiction.
Our democracy, our new nation, was threatened by a minority of citizens in the South who would not accept limitations on the expansion of slavery into the new western territories. If that minority could overrule the majority and break up the country over this disagreement, then some other minority could break it up over some other disagreement. The resulting fragments could in turn be further fragmented.
If minorities could decline to be bound by majority decision, then democratic government — “of the people, by the people, for the people” — could not survive. The nation “so conceived and so dedicated” could not long endure. The Union men who died at Gettysburg would have died in vain.
Some might see irony in the fact that Lincoln founded his argument against secession in the great Declaration, which justified American secession from England. But there is no irony. Our American secession from England was warranted because the English government was not democratic — because Americans were not represented in it. Our new government — our Union — was fundamentally different.
President Lincoln wanted people to understand the reason for their war sacrifices. He wanted them to resolve that we not go back to monarchy or any other government by the few. He knew better than most how messy democracy was, but he exhorted citizens to do the work of preserving that democracy, even when it meant accepting decisions with which they profoundly disagreed. Even if it meant they and their representatives had to accept compromise.
Lincoln’s message still rings true today.