Tag Archives: Gettysburg

Lincoln and the Founders’ “new nation”

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

I didn’t really start taking the Gettysburg Address seriously until one day when I was in grad school, trying to figure out how to finish a paper while eating a roast beef sandwich.  I was enrolled in a seminar on the early national period, and my professor had told us to write an essay answering the following question: Who was more prescient, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson?  Of these two men who had very different visions of what America should be, which one saw the country’s future direction more clearly?

My instinct was to go with Hamilton.  In terms of policy, he was probably the most forward-looking of all the Founders, envisioning a United States with a vigorous, centralized government and a modern, diversified economy.  The overall course of American history has been in this direction, especially since the late nineteenth century.

At the same time, in terms of ideology and values—what Americans have believed about themselves and their country, and what they have wanted to believe about their role in the world—Jefferson casts a long shadow.  If the overall trend of the operation of government and economics has been Hamiltonian, Jefferson’s ideals have been the ones espoused most frequently.  In fact, it’s in terms of equality that Hamilton and the other Federalists look most antiquated, committed as they were to older ideas about elitism and deference.  ”America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” according to G.K. Chesterton.  ”That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence….It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”

A rare photograph of Lincoln at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863. (Wikimedia Commons)

I knew that I’d probably end up hedging a little, noting that while Hamilton was more prescient in terms of the way America has operated, Jefferson was more influential in terms of Americans’ self-definition.  But that answer seemed a little wishy-washy.  I wanted to come up with some sort of definitive answer.

So I was sitting at an Arby’s restaurant, trying to knock out an outline for the paper while getting a bite to eat, when I figured out how to give both Hamilton and Jefferson their due.  Neither man was totally correct.  It was Abraham Lincoln who understood America most clearly, because at Gettysburg he reconciled these two different visions of the nation so that each one supported the other.  Lincoln oversaw a Hamiltonian war—a war of national consolidation, and a war that would result in a more commercial nation with a more vigorous central government—but he did it to achieve Jeffersonian ends.  Indeed, he did it while invoking Jefferson, chapter and verse.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied the birth of America to the promise of liberty and Jefferson’s 1776 “proposition” that all men are created equal.  ”The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” he had claimed shortly before his presidency.  Lincoln praised Jefferson because his Declaration of Independence did not merely justify the Revolution.  Jefferson had used that document to set down “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

In 1863, the American experiment to work out this “abstract truth”—an experiment only “four score and seven years” old—would either survive and vindicate government of the people, or it would collapse and call the whole enterprise of popular government into question.  If a minority could dissolve the Union due to the outcome of an election, democracy by majority rule was unworkable.  To Lincoln, secession was therefore an existential threat to democratic government itself.  The stakes in the Civil War were breathtakingly high.  The survival of popular government was what the men buried at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion” to defend.

Lincoln thus believed that the Hamiltonian tools of a consolidated Union and an active national government were necessary to secure the Jeffersonian principles of liberty and equality.  These tools would also be the means to extend these Jeffersonian ideals to the enslaved.  The war would not only secure what the Founders had gained, but finish what they had left undone by resolving the great American contradiction of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Rather than merely dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln explained the meaning of America, defined the purpose of the war, paid tribute to the dead, exhorted his audience to continue their struggle on behalf of freedom, and reconciled the two seemingly contradictory American impulses of Union and liberty.  And he did it in less than three hundred words.

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor identified

An anonymous donor found it in a book that belonged to Chamberlain’s granddaughter and turned it over to the Pejepscot Historical Society in Maine.  Its authenticity has been confirmed.  The Chamberlain medal held by Bowdoin College is an updated version issued later; I’d always assumed it was the original one.

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The two Gettysburgs

Check out Jesse Smith’s piece on the two faces of Gettysburg (hat tip: John Fea).  One is the solemn and scholarly face of the park, the museums, and historic sites; the second is the kitschy face of the tourist attractions and amenities that have sprung up around the battlefield.

Like Smith, I’ve got to admit that I like some of the hokey tourism-driven aspects of Gettysburg, even though I’m in favor of returning things to their circa-1863 appearance to as practical an extent as is possible.  Hokey tourist traps have become an indelible part of the Gettysburg experience, just as the hokey roadside attractions devoted to gunfighters and lawmen are an indelible part of my memories of visiting the West with my parents.  (I draw the line at ghost tours, however.  I’m not sure why, but the very notion of ghost tours near a battlefield rubs me the wrong way.)

Of course, I’m not old enough to remember a time before all the tourist traps and gift shops, so they’ve always been a part of the only Gettysburg I know.  My affinity for .  If new ones started popping up near some relatively undeveloped historic site, I’d probably be up in arms.  I guess what I’m saying is that when we’re considering the maximum level of tolerable kitschification at historic places, our opinions will partly depend on subjective and personal factors and on our own personal memories of the places in question.

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High-water mark of the Sesquicentennial

I followed Robert Moore’s suggestion and watched the commemorative Pickett’s Charge march via the Codori Barn webcam this afternoon.  USA Today says about 1,000 people participated.  At most, that’s only around one-twelfth the number of men who made the attack, but it was still pretty neat to watch such a large crowd moving across that ground.  The webcam has a mic, too, so there were plenty of Rebel yells to accompany the visuals.

If you didn’t get to watch it live, you can still see an archived replay and some still shots at the Codori webcam site.

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The big one

Several years ago, when I was in the museum business, we decided to do a temporary exhibit on the Gettysburg Address. I e-mailed the NPS to see about borrowing a few artifacts, and they graciously obliged us with some fantastic material. Somebody had to drive up to Pennsylvania to pick it up.

I had never been to Gettysburg, and I was always looking for an excuse to get out of the office anyway, so I booked a rental van to haul the artifacts and got a good friend of mine to tag along, and off we went.  Both of us had been on a Civil War quiz bowl team in high school, and everybody on the team had talked vaguely about making a collective trip to Gettysburg over the years, but it had never worked out so that all of us could go at the same time.

Some history road trips get added value from the landscape along the way, and this was one of them.  It was a beautiful drive northward through the Shenandoah Valley along I-81.  The background music, unfortunately, was ill-suited to the occasion.  This was the year that Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous” was released, and for some reason it seemed to be playing incessantly on every single radio station during the drive up.  To this day, I associate that song with Gettysburg.  (Weird, I know, but your brain is gonna do what your brain is gonna do.)

We got there just after sunset, with just enough daylight left to make out some monuments and wayside markers.  There are football towns and college towns and music towns; Gettysburg was a history town.  The restaurants were named after generals, the stores sold Confederate t-shirts, and our hotel had Troiani prints in the lobby.  It seemed like there was a museum or attraction on every corner.  The place had this irresistible mixture of historic architecture and landscape alongside examples of tourist kitsch, a combination I’ve never encountered in the same way anywhere else.  It sounds jarring, but it worked; it had an appeal all its own.

The old visitor center was still open then, but many of the artifacts had been moved out in preparation for the opening of the new building. We watched the electric map show and checked out the exhibits, case after case after case full of rifles, swords, and bullet-riddled doors.  Then it was out onto the battlefield itself.

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We did the “must-see” highlights, the high-water mark and Little Round Top and all the rest of them.  All those places mentioned in books and labeled on maps were really there, not as ink on paper but as soil and rock and vegetation.  It was like meeting a celebrity and realizing that behind the magazine covers, movie posters, and TV appearances is a real live human being who is standing right in front of you.  Right there was the stone wall, and over there was the copse of trees, and there was that hill, all of them instantly recognizable and looking like they hadn’t aged a day since Gardner had taken his photographs.

Like a lot of historic sites, this one had a personality all its own, with its open fields framed by hills and mountains.  It looked the way Gettysburg should look, an appropriate arena for a great contest, as if the landscape had known that two armies would be meeting there and had been arranging itself for the occasion.  Maybe not for the war’s most decisive battle, but certainly its definitive one.

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A few Lincoln and Civil War notices

In case you haven’t heard, Jurassic Park 4 will be here in 2015 instead of 2014.  I hate having to wait another year, but oh well.

Hey, speaking of Hollywood, my mom didn’t know World War Z is a zombie movie until yesterday.  I asked her if she assumed, based on the trailers, that it was a movie about Brad Pitt running from crowds of normal people.

Okay, on to business.

  • A woman who claims to have a photograph of Lincoln on his deathbed is suing the Surratt House Museum for $100,000 because of a statement on the museum’s website about the photo’s authenticity.
  • BBC America listed ten connections between Lincoln and Britain, but they left out the most obvious one: Lincoln’s ancestors came from England.
  • If you want to take in the anniversary festivities at Gettysburg but can’t make the trip, C-SPAN3 has got you covered.  They’ll be airing the festivities in both live and taped form during the anniversary weekend, and July 4th will feature 24 hours of non-stop Gettysburg programming.  For those of you in the Gettysburg area, the C-SPAN bus will be in town starting June 25th, and the Lincoln Diner will even have C-SPAN coffee mugs for the occasion.  (That’s the one across the street from the train station, right?  I’ve eaten there a couple of times.  Neat place.)
  • Sorry about the short notice on this one, but Dr. Earl Hess will discuss the Battle of Campbell Station at the Farragut Folklife Museum on June 23rd (that’s tomorrow) at 2:00.
  • Finally, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park has obtained an original Civil War document.

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Your very own Civil War tourist attraction

If you’ve got $1,695,000 to spare, you could be the next proprietor of the American Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.  It’s officially on the market.

The exhibits depict such critical turning points as the fateful evening of May 2, 1863, when ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Mark Twain tended to a wounded Grigori Rasputin…

…and Lincoln’s 1860 conference with Lt. Commander Worf of the USS Enterprise.

Pics are from tripadvisor.com.

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