Mencken and More on Lincoln's Speech

The critical observations of America's most famous journalist about America's most famous speech, which was written and delivered by America's most worshipped president, have recently received some attention on the Internet (but certainly never in the mainstream press).  I speak of H. L. Mencken and his comments on Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.  Here are Mencken's words, which make up the concluding two paragraphs of his short, sharp essay on Lincoln.  The essay first appeared in 1920 in the Smart Set, a literary magazine published by Mencken and George Jean Nathan.* I encountered it some years ago in the 1955 edition of the Vintage Book Mencken collection by Alistair Cooke: 

Like William Jennings Bryan, he was a dark horse made suddenly formidable by fortunate rhetoric.  The Douglas debate launched him, and the Cooper Union Speech got him the Presidency. His talent for emotional utterance was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fire-works—the hollow rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple—and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered today. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly.  It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it.  Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—"that government of the people, by the people, for the people," should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.

The quickest and easiest objection to Mencken on this assessment—that is to say, the objection of the average American who has had it drummed into him that the victory of Lincoln's forces over the Confederacy was very nearly the best thing to happen in the history of the North American continent—is that the South could hardly be said to be fighting for freedom while it held a substantial proportion of its population in bondage as slaves.  That argument is easily dismissed.  One could argue in precisely the same way that the American colonial revolutionists couldn't have been fighting for freedom, either, because they had lots of slaves then, too.  The thirteen colonies were fighting for their freedom from Britain—with the slavery question put off until later, and the eleven states of the Confederacy were fighting for their freedom from the Union—with the slavery question put off until later, both in the Confederacy and in the states remaining in the Union in which slavery remained legal.

The big objection to be raised to Mencken, if his purpose was to show the full nonsense of the Gettysburg Address, is that he did not go nearly far enough.  Let us look a little more closely at Lincoln's brief remarks on November 19, 1863, dedicating a cemetery for the victims of the bloody battle that had been fought on the first three days of July:

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. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we 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.

The most important untruth in the speech is right there in the famous opening sentence.  If you subtract four score and seven (87) from 1863, you're back to 1776.  The Confederates would have been on much more solid ground invoking that year than the Unionists as a precedent and justification for their cause.  That was the year that the 13 British colonies proclaimed their independence (declared their secession) from the crown.  They did not at that time create any one, new nation, and it was not their agreed-upon intention to do so.** 

Lincoln probably began his speech, "Four score and seven," instead of "Three score and sixteen," when the new nation was actually created eleven years later, in order to hearken back to the stirring opening lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  Although the rebellious colonies were a long way from being a new nation at that point, in their rhetoric, at least, their cause was "conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

They may have been dedicated to that proposition in word, but they were hardly dedicated to it in deed.  Once again we remind our readers that these were colonies in which the age-old institution of slavery was mostly legal.  The principal author, Thomas Jefferson, after all, and many of the co-signers of that great document extolling freedom and equality were slave owners, and the New England-based slave trade was thriving.

Invoking the Constitution instead of the Declaration of Independence might have made the "new nation" part of Lincoln's speech accurate, but it would have created additional problems.  The Constitution, although silent on the question of the various state laws that made slavery legal, made it quite explicit that slaves were not equal to everyone else.  They were, in fact, three-fifths of everyone else when it came to representation of a state in the House of Representatives and direct taxation of its citizens.  There it is in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The Constitution also left the question of voting rights up to the states, and at that time the general rule was that only owners of property of a certain minimum value were allowed to vote. Furthermore, the federal government did not require that the states allow women to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.  

So much for the first sentence.  The second one makes no more sense.  The "civil war" of which Lincoln speaks was no more a civil war than was the American Revolution.  The breakaway states were not competing for control of the central government. The 15th century War of the Roses between the supporters of the Houses of York and Lancaster for the crown was a classic civil war.  The war over which Lincoln presided was nothing like it.  Proclaiming it a civil war does raise the stakes rhetorically, though, making the speaker, his supporters, and their cause appear to be more threatened than they really are.  The viability of representative self-government, which Lincoln seems to be talking about, was not on the line in this struggle, either on the North American continent or certainly not in the world, as Lincoln implies.  Monarchists were not besieging the capital threatening to end the "noble experiment."  Both parties to the war had a claim on the legacy of the founding fathers, and the South's claim might have been the better of the two.  Those who signed onto the Constitution would certainly never have done so if they had thought that the rights of the signatory states to go their own separate ways at some future date should the union not work out were thereby abrogated forever.

Inflating the stakes is a routine way for war promoters to justify their decision to go to war and to persuade potential fighters that the cause is worth their risking their lives.  World War I, which looks even more pointless in retrospect than it did to many at the time, especially the U.S. participation in it, was preposterously justified as the "war to end all wars" and a war to "make the world safe for democracy."  These days, with respect to our wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are told, just as fantastically, that we are "fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here" and that the soldiers are "fighting for our freedom," even as the government curtails historic liberties at home. 

It is easy to see why Lincoln would have felt an acute need to inflate the stakes.  His war of choice against his fellow Americans, by the fall of 1863, some two-and-a-half years after it had begun, was becoming increasingly hard to sell to those who had to do the fighting.  So difficult had it become that, even with its large advantage in population, the Congress of the Union had felt it necessary earlier in the year to enact the country's first conscription law.  So much for the fine ideal of "liberty."  The law allowed exemption from service by payment of $300 or the supplying of a substitute, doing similar violence to "the proposition that all men are created equal."   

The gross inequity of the conscription legislation had not been lost on the populace, and bloody draft riots had broken out in New York City just days after the big Gettysburg victory.  Like many an oversold war before and since, this one had turned out not to be the easy victory that the people had been given to believe it would be.  And like the current unpopular war of choice in Iraq, the rationale was shifting, though for quite different reasons.  Preserving the Union was still the overriding concern, but, more than anything else, geopolitical considerations had caused Lincoln to ease the freeing of the slaves more explicitly onto the agenda, something he could not have done at the outset without losing much of his Northern following along with the slave-holding states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri.  One of his biggest fears now was that Britain would lend its naval support to their great trading partners in the Confederacy, doing for them what the French had done for the Revolutionists.  The abolition movement was strong in Britain, however, and a British government seen to be fighting against the now outwardly pro-abolition government of the North would have lost popularity.  That was the main reason for the issuance of the rather hollow Emancipation Proclamation five days after the battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) on September 22, 1862.

Lincoln is no doubt making a veiled reference to the heightened importance of abolition as a war rationale when he speaks of a "new birth of freedom" in the concluding paragraph.  Like his clever maneuvering of the South into firing the first shot in a war that he (or those behind him) was determined to wage, it is a big grab for the moral high ground.  Most of the rest of that last paragraph is the standard boilerplate of political leaders who want to keep an unpopular war going.  Lots more people have to die so that those who have died up until now will not have died in vain.  What he means, of course, is, "Let's fight on to victory so that all those brave men on the other side will have all died in vain."  Hearkening to such a rallying cry, this country would probably still be mired down in Vietnam, and we will be killing and dying in the Middle East as far into the future as anyone can see.

The freedom that Lincoln spoke of in his “new birth” reference, in addition to including a military draft was most peculiar in other ways, as well.  Thousands of dissenters were jailed indefinitely without charge after he suspended the Constitutional guarantee of habeas corpus.  Lincoln also orchestrated “the shutting down of literally hundreds of opposition newspapers in the northern states during the war, along with the destruction of printing presses and the imprisonment of newspaper editors and owners.”

The conclusion of that last sentence, in good rhetorical fashion, with its invocation of the threat of annihilation of the grand experiment in people's government, is nothing but a return to the dishonest stakes-inflation of the first two sentences of the speech.

Mencken calls it beautiful poetry, but I believe he is over-generous in doing so.  It is not at all poetry as this writer fancies it.  The definition of real poetry that appeals to me is that of the French priest, Joseph Roux, "Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes." 

Lincoln only got the “Sunday clothes” part right, and in that he exceeded everyone’s expectations.  In his second paragraph he states plainly the occasion for the oration, that is, the dedication of a portion of this particular battlefield—the most costly among sickening scores of such scenes of carnage—as a cemetery for the Union soldiers killed there.  But then, in a flourish in which this quite irreligious man often engaged so as to better connect with his 19th century American audience, he uses religious language.  He suggests that the additional purpose of the gathering might be to make the place a holy one: “…we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow….”

No, he couldn’t, nor could any mere secular figure.  But Lincoln tells us that the men who fought in this major battle were able to do it.  For those practicing state-worshipping counterfeit religion, it might even sound believable.

David Martin

November 22, 2008  (With a new conclusion written the day after paying another visit, October 10, 2010, to the national shrine known as the Gettysburg Battlefield.)


* Mencken has a factual error in that essay.  In support of his argument that Lincoln was no abolitionist, he makes the following statement:  "An Abolitionist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the day after the first battle of Bull Run.  But Lincoln waited until the time was more favorable--until Lee had been hurled out of Pennsylvania and more important still, until the political currents were safely running his way."  Mencken's interpretation of Lincoln's motives is probably correct, but he's a bit off on the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It was issued in the wake of the inconclusive Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), which resulted in Lee's temporary retreat from Maryland, not, as implied, after the later Battle of Gettysburg.  Beware, also, of the numerous typographical mistakes in the Free Republic version of Mencken's essay, to which I have linked for the reader's convenience.  At least one of them changes the meaning, from "baldly simple" to "badly simple" in describing Lincoln's evolved writing style.

** The following three quotes are from Lawrence Goldstone, Dark Bargain: Slavery, Profits, and the Struggle for the Constitution (2005):

Few countries have emerged with less enthusiasm for unity than the United States.  From the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 until the delegates convened in Philadelphia twenty-two years later, most Americans bore primary allegiance to the state within which they lived, and the notion of abandoning that identity to be part of a larger whole was preposterous. (p. 22)

Not one of [the delegates to the Constitutional Convention] came to Philadelphia believing that he was there to create a new government—or reform an old one—only for the benefit of thirteen states on the Atlantic. (p. 43)

Clearly, though [South Carolina’s Charles] Pinckney, [Connecticut’s Oliver] Ellsworth, [Maryland’s Luther] Martin, and [Virginia’s George] Mason, and most of the rest of the delegates who were active in the ratification were federalists or antifederalists only by coincidence.  For them, the Constitution was a national document only secondarily.  The forging of a nation was a far subordinate consideration to the welfare of their particular state, although they often equated the welfare of their state with that of the nation at large.  In that regard, these men had advanced their thinking very little in four months in Philadelphia.  They had arrived thinking of themselves as South Carolinians or Virginians or Connecticuters, and that is how they left. (p, 188)



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