Some Thoughts on the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln is one of my heroes, and I make no apologies for that. I am aware of his flaws, both personal, and political.  I do not demand perfection of a hero; rather, when I consider someone a hero, it means I am responding deeply and passionately to that person’s accomplishments and integrity.  Jerry Garcia, in discussing punk rock, remarked, “What’s important is what the music says, not what it doesn’t say.”  A valid standard, in my opinion, to apply to both art, and our understanding of historic characters.

Yes, I know; I’m sounding a little bit defensive.  It is hard not to.  In the milieu of contemporary science fiction, the pressure is constant to fall into line on a whole series of issues–issues that, as anyone who has followed my blog knows, I disagree with strongly.  I do not believe in fighting for a “kindlier, gentler” capitalism; I do not believe in separating the Working Class into disparate pieces and setting them against each other; I do not believe in fighting for increased prosperity among those who are already more prosperous than 90% of us.

I do believe in equality–in equality of opportunity for education, health care, standard of living, and, yes, personal expression.  In equality of whom and how one might love, and, of course, equality before the law.  Lincoln led a part of the human race in taking a huge step forward in the fight for equality, and I honor him for that.  One hundred and fifty years ago today, he made it clear (though this, perhaps, is the least significant aspect of the Address) that he did so knowing exactly what he was doing.

The fight for equality goes on.  My contributions to that fight are insignificant, involving a few blog posts that are unlikely to change anyone’s mind, and maybe–maybe–by telling the truth as best I see the truth, the creation of a story now and then that helps people understand their world a tiny bit better.  Not much, but it is what I do, and I make no apologies for that, either.  As far as I do anything at all, I do not fight for the advancement of one section of the Working Class (and certainly not for a section of the “people” regardless of class!), but for the equality of all human beings, because I believe that is the right thing to do.

If you want to know who is working against equality, look at those who hate Lincoln and you will have a pretty good idea.  The Right Wingers who run as far and as fast as possible from him because he took a stand for freedom, to the pseudo-Leftists who love finding reasons to tear him down because he took action that challenges their comfortable ideas, flowing, generally, from their comfortable lives.

Among those who fought for equality, Abraham Lincoln stands out as a hero, and the Gettysburg Address stands out as a shining example of a critical moment in that fight.  For a good analysis of what it means today, in general, try this.  But for me, personally, it stands as inspiration.  Yes, the fight is worth fighting. And yes, in the fight to build a better future, there are heroes.




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37 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address”

  1. In my experience, Lincoln is a lot like Jesus – that is, everyone says they’re on his side and he’d be on theirs, and then they distort his words and actions to suit their own agendas, I’m not really familiar with too many people openly tearing him down or running away from him.

  2. Hey, Matt. I am. One LIbertarian recently commented on Facebook that he was a terrible president because (ready for this?) he presided over a war in which so many Americans died. This sort of “logic” shows that *any* excuse to tear him down is valid. And if you haven’t heard attacks from Lincoln by the pseudo-left, then I envy you for not being around those areas–but bring up his name in those circles and you will hear *only* about the racism evident in his 1956 speech, and on his agreeing to hang the American Indians after the Minnesota Uprising.

  3. Steve, all energy has an impact. I won’t argue how significant, but everything you do is significant. Peace, Danny.

  4. Yowch. In that case, I guess I’ve just gotten exceptionally lucky. I’ve experienced plenty of fetishization of Lincoln, of the same sort applied by the Right to their nebulous notion of the Founding Fathers + Ronald Reagan, & plenty of my fellow leftists (or pseudo-leftists) who mouth his phrases like empty platitudes with no understanding or intent of follow-through, but it’s all been hero worship. Even i the halls of academe, I’ve seen *deconstructions* and *dissections*, but without any intent to attack.

    I didn’t mean, however, to suggest that those attacks don’t take place. Just that, yeah, I don’t have any experience with that.

  5. I’ve seen a *lot* of attacks. It’s relatively fashionable with the holier-than-thou crowd.

    It’s always important to remember than real people fought (and died) for real, meaningful progress. Not perfection – but genuine steps forward nonetheless. What Lincoln accomplished is still awe-inspiring.

  6. Jonas: I hate it when you say in a short paragraph what I spent a whole blog post trying to say. Fitting, though, given what Everett told Lincoln after the address.

  7. Lincoln is a hero of mine too. But it is also worth remembering that in the fight for equality, you can’t dismiss the fight for equality for part of the working class while fighting for equality for the whole – especially since such equality is NOT a zero sum game. And people have the right to self-defense, to fight where they are attacked. If women fight against ignoring rape, and fight for political changes that make ignoring rape harder, that is not “dividing the working class”. Cornell West chooses to focus a lot on winning equality for African Americans, but also sees the link to other issues, for example comparing Snowden and Manning to John Brown. It is fine to oppose identity politics. But don’t get self-righteous yourself and be too quick to dismiss people fighting for equality on particular issues as engaging in identity politics.

  8. I’m actually not a person, but an automated summary-writing bot.

    Amazed at this snippet from Wikipedia: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” – the Chicago Times

    It’s always absolutely fascinating to read what the contemporary press had to say about well-loved historical figures. A while ago I read a bunch of newspaper articles about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and it almost made my hair fall out. Articles from the liberal press, mind you.

  9. Gar Lipow: Bingo. The left squabbles endlessly over what is and isn’t a valid category of resistance. Meanwhile, those with power consolidate their hammerlock on us all. Silently and very fast.

    I agree with Steven that Abraham Lincoln was a hero. And one reason he was a hero is that he saw a conflict in which even the “good” side was deeply corrupt and compromised, and yet had the clarity to grasp that Less Evil was worth defending–to the last drop of blood!–against the amassed forces of More Evil. Because human lives don’t happen on the scale where they can afford to hold out for perfection.

  10. So, the short version is, there is no easy, simple, brainless test of a cause or a method of fighting that determines if it is progressive, which means that each must be looked at, considered, analyzed. It’s a lot of work. This is why I write SF instead of being a professional revolutionist. Well, that and I’m too much of a weenie to be a Bolshevik.

  11. “So, the short version is, there is no easy, simple, brainless test of a cause or a method of fighting that determines if it is progressive”

    You aren’t thinking this through enough. Of course there is, and WE CAN SELL IT TO THEM. “Brust and Nielsen Hayden. Leninist and liberal. Submit YOUR rhetoric to us and get the TRUE MEASURE of its working-class authenticity. Just email for YOUR PERSONAL SURVEY RESULTS. Enclose $5 for an actual response.”

    (Signed, Satan. An underrated player in the growing consultancy space!)

  12. I find myself more repulsed by the segment of the left, and I think it’s a sizable segment, who adjust their social views jn accordance with their comforts. Sure Lincoln was flawed but he did something truly remarkable and truly good and what I am fascinated by is the thought process that led him to do so. (I had planned to read another biography and to reread Team if Rivals but I barely have energy to read a sentence these days. )

  13. Team of Rivals is a wonderful book. Not flawless, but wonderful, and, yeah, worth a reread. I should give it third reading myself soon. After all the Kansas stuff.

  14. Okay, I am actually genuinely shocked that you were impressed by Team of Rivals. I thought it was sentimental crap, very much driven by post-2000 American political needs and the whole notion that what we need in order to “fix” things is a national daddy strong enough to “knock some heads together” and somehow overcome those (assumed to be trivial!) “sectarian” differences. It’s a near-perfect expression of NPR politics.

  15. I thought the scholarship behind it so fantastic, that I honestly couldn’t care less about the conclusions. The thing is a gold mine of information and cool bits.

  16. On the 150th anniversary there are a lot of things to admire. But I’m surprised for the literary minded the number 270 isn’t higher on your list. Steven: wc says your post was 541, or twice as long as the address.

    That amount of brevity for the subject, and the resulting longevity strikes me as significant.

  17. Good essay. The pressure Lincoln was operating under are mind boggling. To have written that speech under those pressures and to steer the course he did was just fantastic.
    Certain segments of the left demand the absence of feet of clay and then apply mud anywhere they deem those feet to have appeared. The right seems to redistribute the mud from those they deem saints to those they want to run away from.

  18. Steve Brust, bravo!

    Steve Halter, +1 on “Certain segments of the left demand the absence of feet of clay and then apply mud anywhere they deem those feet to have appeared.” Yup. I’ve been a guy who has pointed to Lincoln’s shortcomings when he’s been idolized, but part of that’s because I hate idols and love that the best humans can be heroes when the time requires it.

  19. “One LIbertarian recently commented on Facebook that he was a terrible president because (ready for this?) he presided over a war in which so many Americans died.”

    It was certainly not an ideal outcome.

    I figure if it was Jesus in Lincoln’s place, he might have found a way to get good results while avoiding all that. But it wasn’t Jesus, it was just another politician.

    Going for unconditional surrender probably prolonged the war more than it was worth. If the Southern politicians could at least bargain for their miserable lives, the war might have ended sooner with less destruction. On the other hand, it might have been harder for the North to keep their resolve, they might have bargained away too much in their eagerness to end the fighting. And if the southerners weren’t convinced they were beaten, they might have done a lot of passive resistance. We could have wound up with a hundred years of segregation — or worse. So I can’t be sure it was the wrong thing, even in hindsight.

    Lincoln presided over a giant debacle, but from what I’ve seen I’d have to fault Jefferson Davis for it more than Lincoln. I haven’t seen much evidence of Lincoln trying to defuse that bomb, but then there’s no evidence that he could have done anything effective if he’d tried. It might have been pretty much inevitable by the time he had much influence.

  20. There was not the demand for unconditional surrender; I’m not sure where that comes from. Lincoln said that if the South agreed to restoring the Union without slavery, they could write the rest of the terms themselves.

  21. I was going to say Lincoln offered very lenient terms to the Confederates, and even after he won did not execute the leaders. Even Jeff Davis was allowed to live in comfort for the rest of his days. One of the criticisms that can be made in fact was that the Union was too lenient in ways they did not have to be. The old demand for “40 acres and a mule” could have been met. Supporters of the Confederacy paid no taxes during the Civil War, not only property taxes to the States (which after the war were often in the control of Republicans) but to the Federal government – the income tax. Confederate property could have been seized for failure to pay those taxes. No existing laws would have had to have been passed. And the land could have been distributed to former slaves, and to poor whites as well – land reform. That actually was called for. But the victorious Union was too anxious to integrate the old Southern slave-owning class into the victorious industrial capitalist class. So the old slave-owners were allowed to pay back taxes and keep their land – and mortgage it to Northern bankers.

    Lincoln was a great man and had feet of clay. The two are not incompatible. I think Frederick Douglas has one of the the best takes on him – filled with biting criticism but also admiration for his greatness.

  22. Also Lincoln did a great deal to avoid the Civil War. He offered to keep the fucking fugitive slave law in place – just not to exempt in from the grand jury requirement every other type of extradition required. He cheerfully offered to give up all tariffs. He even offered to allow some additional slave states into the Union, just not so many as to give slave states back the majority they had lost. In short he offered everything short of guaranteeing to eternally preserve slaver. He would not agree to shut down newspapers that criticized slavery. He was willing to compromise with slave owners , but not surrender to them. I’m not at all sure that the Jesus who turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temples and who said “I bring not peace but a sword” would have handled things so differently from Lincoln. But then again I’m a Jewish atheist, so I can’t claim to have any Jesus in my heart but the Rebel Jesus, Jesus the Revolutionary, and in all fairness that is not most people’s Jesus.

  23. I was wrong.

    It looks like it was pretty definitely too late for Lincoln to avoid the war.

    Maybe Jesus could have found some way to soften his opponents’ hearts and reach a workable deal, but it sounds like it was too much to ask of a human being.

  24. I find it hard to think of any sort of deal that would have both avoided the war and freed the slaves. From the 1860 census numbers we see:
    Total Population: 31,183,582
    Total Free Population: 27,233,198
    Total Number of Slaves: 3,950,528
    Slaves as % of Population:12.7%
    Total Number of Families:5,155,608
    Total Number of Slaveholders:393,975
    % of Families Owning Slaves: 7.6%
    So, I have my doubts on ancient philosophers reaching any less bloody resolution.

  25. There was no income tax in 1860. The 16th amendment was over 50 years in the future. AFAIK, the only source of federal revenue were customs and excises.

    Lincoln did bend over backwards to try to avoid war. I wonder what would have happened if those Southern war-mongers had managed to avoid firing on Fort Sumter. (Cf. Castro making no attempt to enforce Cuban law in Guantanamo). I think secession would eventually have become de facto permanent. After 10 years, 20 years, …. There would be two countries, two currencies, no slavery in the territories and the south might look some South America oligarchy. But no those idiots wanted to fight.

  26. “There would be two countries, two currencies, no slavery in the territories and the south might look some South America oligarchy. But no those idiots wanted to fight.”

    I try to imagine it. Northern abolitionists would still want war. Northern harbor forts would still be a permanent embargo threat. Slaves would still escape north until the word got our that the US government would catch them and send them right back.

    The south would presumably suffer a balance of payments problem. A few big agricultural exports, many industrial imports. They could enforce tariffs etc to aid their infant industries. Perhaps they would set up a banking system to meet their needs, or more likely not.

    So my guess is the South would get relatively poorer, and maybe absolutely poorer. They could not afford much of a peace-time army, and presumably would be smart enough not to attack. On the other hand, if they thought war was inevitable then they should attack immediately because the longer they wait the worse their position. And if they had secret treaties that they thought would give them an advantage….

    The North ought to avoid provocations. Make it clear that the South’s failures were their own and not due to Yankee meddling. But it’s hard to do that. There are always idiots to make inflammatory statements, particularly in Congress.

    If they did later drift into a destructive war, it would say the southerners who wanted war earlier were right. Anything they did to prepare — smelt iron, build roads and railroads and telegraphs, shipyards that could churn out ironclads, etc — the Yankees would do faster. If they had to fight, the sooner the better.

    I would have preferred a peaceful, structured end to slavery. But that couldn’t happen unless Southerners agreed. More likely there would be a war first.

  27. In terms of not firing on Fort Sumpter – I’m pretty sure that the North would have had no reason to return slaves to a De Facto separate country, and that would have led to massive increases in slaves running away – especially as lack of trade with the North would have made the South poorer and thus mistreatment of slaves would have grown worse. That alone would have led to war. Also some parts of Southern States opposed secession. That is why we have West Virginia today. There would have been attempts by parts of Southern States to break off and rejoin the Union. And that would have led to war. Also Lincoln was willing to bend over backward to get the South to rejoin, short of surrender. He was NOT willing to let them secede. If the South had not attacked quickly for the reasons I mentioned, he would have eventually either have found a way to provoke them to attack or found an excuse to attack, The war might have been delayed a year or two while the North got its army together into better shape. Given the difference in population and economy the delay would have benefitted the North much more than the South. Probably the reason the South did not wait. Aside from the belief of Southerners at time in their superiority as warriors, the cooler heads probably knew that their best chance was to start the war while the North was unready and win it quickly. Whether militarily it was possible I don’t know. Many people who understand military strategy better than I do say the South could never have won no matter what they. Since they do understand military matters better than I do I mostly accept this, but always think that it is always easier to think what happened was inevitable rather than consider that some unexpected thing could have changed it.

  28. “I’m pretty sure that the North would have had no reason to return slaves to a De Facto separate country”

    As you point out, it would be necessary to do that if they chose to avoid war, and it would also be difficult to do in the face of increasing abolitionist pressure.

    “…especially as lack of trade with the North would have made the South poorer”

    Would the trade stop? The people who wanted to trade before would still want to trade. Would one government or the other try to stop it? The North could set up blockades, but that would be war. They could set up lots of border checkpoints to stop overland trade. Either side might set up tariffs and trade restrictions, encouraging retaliation.

    “Given the difference in population and economy the delay would have benefitted the North much more than the South. Probably the reason the South did not wait.”

    I don’t think they thought it out that well. But if they had, that would have been a strong reason.

    “…the South could never have won no matter what they….”

    Wars end when one side stops fighting and the other side doesn’t attack.

    The South didn’t need to “win” the war, they only needed to persuade Lincoln or his successor to stop attacking them. Their first chance was to get early victories that might persuade Lincoln to stop attacking. That doesn’t work well against Americans, it works better against autocrats who don’t care about re-election.

    Their second chance was to get foreign nations to help. That was a decision that foreign nations got to make. The british fleet may have had difficulty against small low ironclads, so they might not have cared to break the blockade. They still controlled the Atlantic, though, and maybe they could have stopped the Yankee trade which would have helped persuade the North to stop attacking. But they didn’t want to.

    Their third chance came if Lincoln lost the election, a new president might not want to continue. But they were so close to beaten by then that likely a new president would have fought on.

    Barring a Yankee military blunder, they had no real chance for military victory. Like, suppose that Yankee incompetence let Lee take Washington, DC. What would he have done with it? It had no military value.

    “… it is always easier to think what happened was inevitable rather than consider that some unexpected thing could have changed it.”

    Yes. In hindsight we can review the variables that look like they were decisive, and figure that nothing else could have happened. Could something have changed Yankee public opinion and gotten them to stop attacking? Every scenario I’ve thought of for that looks unrealistic to me, although there’s a whole lot I don’t know about North society during the war. But it’s a public opinion question more than a military one.

  29. Steve – I’m curious as to your thoughts on Nelson Mandela, a modern-day Lincoln, who freed a lot more folks without a full blown war. Like Lincoln, flawed, but as Lincoln promised before his assassination, no hatred and no recriminations for losing 27 years in a prison on a bogus charge.

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