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OPINION - The words of 150 years ago

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  As someone who makes a living through the spoken word, I can’t help but admire Lincoln and Jefferson. Their words shaped our nation. Jefferson penned our founding documents, and they contain many of his ideas. Lincoln’s words kept the nation together; not for bringing the south back into the union but by persuading northerners that the union was worth fighting for.

The idea of states rights was much stronger than it is today. 150 years ago, The United States was always referred to in the plural. “The United States are engaged in a great struggle.” Not “The United States is fighting a civil war.” The nation was indeed thought of as a collection of states. The war was fought with as many state militia-men – whose leaders served under the governor of their states -  as it was with federal troops.

Fighting for ‘the union’ was a highly abstract notion. More accurately, it was a fight to keep this collection of states together.

Harvard President Drew Faust, a historian, makes excellent points about Lincoln before his op-ed piece comes off the rails.

Northerners would not lay down their lives to free the slaves. A northerner might be an abolitionist, but the preferred solution to the ‘negro problem’ was for the federal government to send ‘em back to Africa. (Which, by the way, was an idea that Lincoln initially supported.) There was certainly no concept of equality between the races. Many working class northerners were hostile to the idea to fighting a war only to compete for jobs with newly-freed blacks who’d migrate above the Mason-Dixon line. It was Lincoln who had to tell the nation what we were fighting for. Dr. Faust raises a fine point that James Buchanon, who took office after Lincoln’s assassination, could not have raised an army to fight the Civil War. The volunteers from Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin and Michigan were fighting for an abstraction that Lincoln's words helped to shape.

Today we mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address – where in 272 words President Lincoln tells that the war is about liberty; a government by the people, of the people, for the people. That’s a bigger idea than states rights or even freeing slaves. Those concepts exist under the tent that liberty provides.

Dr. Faust goes astray when he wonders if our experiment of self-government is failing today. We are a politically divided nation, but there are no similarities to the coming apart of our nation in 1861. Senators are not holding live-round duels outside the Capitol. Citizens with rival ideas are not engaged in bleeding-Kansas struggles. Cadets at the Citadel or John Brown’s followers in Harpers Ferry are not at-arms. We, correctly, settle our differences within a non-violent political framework – even though New York and California seem to have little in common with Nebraska or Indiana. This is the way Lincoln would want it, and the ultimate legacy of his greatest-ever speech.

Chris Conley
11.19.13

There is a disgraceful news item that must be addressed. Ken Burns, whose documentary The Civil War is the definite multimedia account of our nation's great struggle, invited many celebrities to be filmed reciting the Gettysburg Address. Among them President Obama.  

See Youtube video here 

He altered the line “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”.  The President of the United States left out “under God”. It was in the text as it was put in front of him. It was intentional. He should explain why.