Civil War 150

Guelzo on Lincoln & test of American democracy in sponsored NY Times piece

The Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War Era Studies says that Gettysburg served as the affirmation of American democracy for Lincoln.

Gettysburg College Prof. Allen Guelzo authored a piece that explores the Civil War's test of American democracy and Lincoln's affirmation of the American experiment in the Gettysburg Address  The piece appeared in the Nov. 17 New York Times Sunday Review, just two days before the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

In the Sunday Review, Guelzo's thoughts were accompanied by the story of David Wills, an 1851 graduate of Gettysburg College (then Pennsylvania College), who invited Lincoln to the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery in November 1863.

Guelzo's is the final piece in a seven-part series sponsored by Gettysburg College, and designed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and generate thoughtful discourse about its legacy.

Allen GuelzoThe full text of Guelzo's piece is below.

For Lincoln, Gettysburg was the true test of American democracy

The crowd that thronged the driveway of the White House on the evening of July 7, 1863 wanted a speech from Abraham Lincoln, the Pres­ident of the United States. Lincoln was usually leery of impromptu speeches. But three days before, he had received news of a great Union victory in the Civil War, at Gettysburg, and he was in a rare good mood.

What struck him particularly about the news of the victory was its timing, smack on “the glorious old 4th” of July. “How long ago is it?” he asked, “eighty-odd years – since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation, by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’” There was something almost supernaturally coinci­dental between Gettysburg in 1863 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and he was guardedly optimistic that “peace does not appear so distant as it did.”

Then, at the beginning of November, an invitation arrived from David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg lawyer and 1851 graduate of Gettysburg College (then Pennsylvania College), asking him to “formally set apart” a new Soldiers’ Nation­al Cemetery at Gettysburg “by a few appropriate remarks.” Michael Jacobs, a professor at the College, even sent Lincoln a copy of his new account of the battle, The Rebel Invasion, to provide background.

Lincoln’s actual role in the dedication ceremonies was a small one. But that connection between 1776 and 1863 continued to haunt his thinking. He began writing-out a preliminary version of his “remarks” before leaving Washington, returning to his improvised speech on July 7th. The language was now more studied – Fourscore and seven years ago rather than “how long ago is it” – but the idea was the same. The American nation had been founded on a proposition, that “all men are created equal,” and the battle at Gettysburg had been as much about that proposition as any battle fought by the Revolutionary generation.

Still, there was this difference: in 1776, that proposition looked like the shape of the future. (George Washington thought 1776 marked the beginning of “an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any other period”). By 1863, that “proposition” had been turned back, undermined, and all-but-buried everywhere but in the United States. And with the coming of the Civil War, and the denial of that “proposition” by the Southern rebels, it really seemed as though the founding proposition was being put to its ultimate test, “whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” Democracies are founded on the consent of the governed – what if the governed turn out to be too selfish, too feckless and too unwilling to live up to the demands of equality?

It was Gettysburg, and the city of the dead which he would dedicate there, which persuaded Lincoln that democracies are not, after all, doomed to failure and self-destruction. The dedication of the soldiers who had died for that “proposition” equaled anything the glittering aristocrats of Europe could produce, and from that dedication, Americans could draw an increased devotion to government of, by and for the people. And, mindful of his charge to make only a “few” remarks, he said it all in just 272 words.

Lincoln did not live to see the full flower of victory two years later. But the music of his rhetoric set American feet marching to Appomattox, to D-Day, to Iwo Jima, and yes, even Baghdad. It still plays in us today.

Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College.

Guelzo also recently presented "Young Man Lincoln," the first of our lectures in his "Mister Lincoln" lecture series. Watch the video.

Find out more about Gettysburg College's Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the American Civil War and the New York Times series at

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Nikki Rhoads, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Sun, 17 Nov 2013

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