Google analytics

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address, and why it matters

by Jamie Lutton
This August is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War,  in particular the Battle of Gettysburg where over three days tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers died in a bitterly won, horrible battle.
There does not seem to be much interest in this anniversary in Seattle, or anywhere on the West Coast. Most of the Civil War battles were on the East Coast. If we lived, say, 50 miless from the  Gettysburg (or the Battle of Bull Run, etc'), it might be a bit different.  
But our Civil  War seems so long ago and far away; there is not much public interest. I sell more books about the English Civil War than our Civil War. This is a pity; as American history is the great struggle for full rights for all human beings, played out in our political documents, like the Gettysburg Address.. 
This speech by Lincoln, made over those fresh graves , restated and re-framed the idea of what America stood for, and what the war was about. 

Gary Willis in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg  focuses on the incredible importance  of the text of the Lincoln short speech at Gettysburg, known as The Gettysburg Address., which many argue is the most important speech in the English Language. Lincoln was  Influenced by the 2,500-year-old  Perclies  funeral oration, praising Athens and its moral ideals,  and Jefferson's writings (and in my opinion Thomas Paine's The American Crisis)  

The grave moral  hazard facing our country from the 1790's to the 1850's was the persistence of the institution of slavery in half the country. Though slave holding had been banned in all the northern states, (and the slave trade from Africa had been made illegal some two decades before) slave owning was part of the economic engine of the South. .
In his book, Garry Willis gives a brilliant summation of the political struggles in the 1850's, where the South nearly won an important political battle - the fight to spead the instittution of slavery to the western territories like Kansas. This struggle was to  politically protect legal slavery in the South. .
If they had succeeded, the Northern states would have been outnumbered in the Senate and House, and the South very likely would have ended up controlling the nation.   We might never have been rid of slavery. 
Think of it as if the ""red states"" nowadays (note that they are the  former Slave Holding states and territories) dictating what California and Washington and Massicustests and New York does, in matters like gay rights and  abortion rights.
Anyone academic who claims that the Civil War was not about slavery is a revisionist, at the very least, or an outright apologist for slave holding.  The declarations of succession put forth by the Southern states say out right that slavery was their reason for succeeding.
This is why Lincoln At Gettysburg is the best one book on the Civil War to read. It fully deserves the Pulitzer Prize as the book is a masterpiece.   
The Civil War is isn't really 'about' the many furious and bloody battles that raged for 5 years - though books about them can make interesting reading These battles are only the second half of this great struggle.  
The great question is, why would our country rip itself apart, brother literally fighting brother, if it wasn't about deeply held ideas?  If in the end, it was not about  grotesque money and power struggling with the determined force of moral  conscience? 

We see that in our own times, when people are  fighting in America to keep gays from marrying. putting forth specious arguments against it.  When the Russian government feels so threatened by the gay rights movement that laws are passed to mortally attack gays and their sympathizers.. And the fighting over this is mild compared to the political infighting that occurred over whether should be legal to own a human being, 150 plus years ago..   
Lincoln at Gettysburg also reveals why Abraham Lincoln was such a good writer. Not only was he very well read,  he had a circle of friends who would review his speeches and political writings. He wrote his own speeches, instead of 'farming' them off to someone else. 
The 1850's in America are a distant mirror to our own time, as humanity struggles still over these vital questions .
If the South had managed to win the war, the United States would have been unrecognizable.  We would have been two countries; one larger than the other, slave holding, monstrous. That is why this war was a great moral struggle.  As Lincoln said in 1858, when he debated Douglas during the campaign, "A nation divided against itself cannot stand."
.  
Another book to read is Grant Moves South, written in 1960 by Bruce Catton, as part of his 100 year anniversary series on the time of Civil War  
This particular  book is about how Grant took over command of the Union army, part way into the war.  It focused on what sort of man he was, as well as how he controlled and commanded the Union army. It  gives a week by week history of the beginning of the war, and the character and ability of particular leaders on both sides. . 
One small but  important account from this book was that one the first things the Union army did for the slaves fleeing the South and joining up with them, before the Emancipation Proclamation was written, was that after feeding the runaway slaves and giving them some shelter, they provided marriage for couples (pg363).
The slaves had not been allowed marriage under slavery, you see; only casual relations as slaves marrying was a  treat to their owners, to the notion that blacks were mere animals. .One Union chaplain married 119 of freed slaves in one hour.
Marriage meant the world  to the freed slaves, as they  had had their families ripped apart to be sold off. It symbolized their true freedom from bondage.
 It also humanized them in the eyes of the Union soldiers, most of whom had rarely seen black people. Because they wanted to be married, because they dealt with them face to face in great numbers, this brought their humanity alive to them, so they could see what they were fighting for.  And soon after this, the first Union army black companies were formed to fight the Confederates, even in the sure knowledge that they faced torture and death at the hand of the Confederate army if they were captured.
 The runaway slaves  had convinced enough of the Union leaders of their full humanity. And they were eager to serve..

These times are a echo of what we face now.  Some Americans, some nations! who we struggle with, would draw a circle around a small group and say 'only these people have full human rights'.  
Be the group in question be blacks, women, immigrants or gays the struggle is not over. It is clear who won the Reconstruction after the Civil War - the South did - as it took another 100 years and more before black citizens had a semblance of full civil rights.

But as we can see in Russia and elsewhere, today, the struggle is still ongoing to attempt to give all humans rights.

No comments:

Post a Comment