"What lessons should Americans today draw from the Gettysburg Address?"
By Kent D. Shelton
Thirteen years before President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, The Statesman Daniel Webster stood before the Senate and delivered a 3 hour speech in an attempt to avert a civil war between the states. Webster was a gifted orator with many American people following his remarks as they received them by telegraph and newspaper.
In his attempt to unite the country, Daniel Webster, who was a slave owner himself, endorsed the Fugitive Slave Act, a compromise crafted by leaders of the day that would allow runaway slaves to be captured, imprisoned and held without bail or trial. The burdensome tasks of documentation of the status of freemen and slaves would prove disastrous. Sympathizers caught aiding fugitive slaves were subject to punishment themselves. Daniel Webster, in an attempt to court popularity, by his 7th of March 1850 Speech, sought to galvanize his sights upon the office of the President of the United States. No matter how movingly he spoke of preserving the union, which he did, his controversial ideas threaded into his oratory which were designed to appease abolitionists and slave holders alike, offended the sensibilities of his contemporaries. It cost him his credibility, destroyed his political aspirations, and eliminated his potential as a future leader. Twelve years earlier, in an interesting twist of irony, Abraham Lincoln identified and predicted the dangers of ambitious men, whose passions for power would not stop short of the highest offices in the land. In an address before the Springfield, Illinois Young Men’s Lyceum in 1838, speaking of these passions, Lincoln said: “It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it reasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”1
To our good fortune today, Americans in that time period read between the lines and understood the motivations of Daniel Webster and others like him. Ralph Waldo Emerson at that time commented, “We have seen the great party or property and education in the country driveling and huckstering away, for views of party fear or advantage, every principle of humanity and the dearest of hopes of mankind; the trustees of power only energetic when mischief could be done; imbecile as corpses when evil was to be prevented. Our great men succumb so far to the forms of the day as to peril their integrity for the sake of adding to the weight of their personal character the authority of office, or making a real government titular. Our politics are full of adventurers, who having by education and social innocence a good repute in the state, break away from the law of honesty and think they can afford to join the devil’s party. ‘Tis odius, these offenders in high life…” 2
So why this history on what happened before the Gettysburg Address? Consider for a moment, why would Americans choose a man without an impressive resume of honors and distinctions to be their President and leader? What was it about a short speech, with humble acknowledgement of the many who gave the ultimate sacrifice that touched America? All who read this speech today cannot finish it, without a sense of increased devotion to the unfinished work of insuring that those who died at that place will not be forgotten or our country fail because of our neglect. Suppose for a moment that someone else was in President Lincoln’s place that day with a long speech that assigned blame and outlined a new program for national improvement… Something like that would surely have required doublespeak, clarification and back peddling to keep it from ending up in the dustbin of history. Can you imagine how divisive that would become to the nation? There is a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” 3 If in fact, it was said by President Abraham Lincoln, it certainly goes a long way to explain his character and desire to speak truth without political agenda or future election possibilities. When a man has no passions for distinction and glory, he can speak from his heart. And people listen, understand and treasure the message for decades.
Thank goodness for our system of government where the people can choose to have the right person in place when the torn fabric of the nation needs him. Thank goodness for a man like Lincoln who knew how to apply the salve of healing to America’s wound. Thank goodness for a man like Lincoln, a man who by his very nature would link heaven and earth in the great destiny of America.
2. The American Legacy, A Pageant of Great Deeds and Famous Words. p.177
3. “Abe” Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories by Alexander K. McClure c.1904, p. 184