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Gettysburg and the 'new proposition' of American politics

The marble bust of Abraham Lincoln stands in a hallway of the statehouse on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt.
The marble bust of Abraham Lincoln stands in a hallway of the statehouse on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt.
Toby Talbot, Associated Press

“Four score and seven years ago.” This is one of the most recognizable speech openings of all time. It is also one of the least understood.

Even by the linguistic standards of 19th century America, Lincoln’s start is archaic and cumbersome. This is remarkable given that many consider the speech to be the finest expression of modern English ever penned. To avoid the confusing use of “score,” Lincoln might have said, “eighty-seven years ago.” To be even more clear and concise, he might have said, “In 1776.”

Taking his audience to 1776 is absolutely critical to his aim. Some in Lincoln’s day argued that the nation began with the ratification of the Constitution, an agreement they believed the states could opt-out of as they wished. But for Lincoln, the nation was “brought forth” in 1776 with the passage of the Declaration of Independence. The point here is that as important as the Constitution is in defining America, it remains subordinate to — because it was but a practical expression of — a prior, deeper and controlling ideal, namely that “all men are created equal,” the central and self-evident truth of the Declaration. The power of this moral fact — that all people stand as equals in their right to rule themselves — gave birth to America as a country of freedom, one worthy of a binding allegiance as long as it was dedicated as such. Furthermore, it was only by rededicating themselves to this ideal — by rising up to defend the country so conceived — that Lincoln’s audience could truly honor the noble dead at Gettysburg whose ultimate sacrifice had already hallowed the ground beneath their feet.

So, why not just open with, “In 1776”? Well, as with much of the address, Lincoln layers his start with multiple meaning. “Four score and seven years ago” is a patently biblical system of counting. Thus, these six simple words simultaneously direct his audience to the Declaration — and to God — signaling that America is, at once, grounded in a revolutionary truth about inherent human freedom and a sense of divine superintendence. This implicit signal becomes explicit in the memorable last line when he concludes that the country operates of, by, and for the people, even as it stands as a “nation, under God.” For Lincoln, the notion that “there is a God governing the world” did not translate into a sweeping set of easily identifiable and zealously enforced public policies. But, as he suggested in some private correspondence explaining his Second Inaugural — the great companion piece to the Gettysburg address — it did set out some essential, if very broad, non-sectarian contours of justice, humility, and charity, and thus was a “truth (he) thought needed to be told.”

In our most fitting efforts to recognize the upcoming sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, we would do well to reflect on the current status and trajectory of these twin civic truths Lincoln considered vital for America on November 19, 1863.

One might think about it this way. Lincoln’s opening at Gettysburg explained that America was dedicated to the “proposition” that all men are created equal. Noting that a “proposition” is something more provisional than a proven fact, or “truth,” some contemporary scholars have seized on this to suggest that Lincoln himself was queasy about any full-bodied claim that moral truths actually exist. But Lincoln said too many times, in too many other places, that he was convinced that “all men are created equal” was a notion that was true across time, space and skin color. Thus, at Gettysburg, he is not suggesting that such an ideal is merely propositional (something that may or may not actually be true) but rather that America’s dedication to it is propositional. The Civil War was, to use his term from the very next sentence, a “test” to see if America’s dedication to such a truth would or would not last.

With thanks to Lincoln as much as anyone, any question about America’s current commitment to the doctrine of the Declaration is now erased. This is not to say that America is a perfect utopia of freedom. It is to say that nobody taken seriously today would argue for the existence of inherent inequalities naturally entitling one person to rule over another. But, what of those today who hold that America must answer to the people and to God? To be sure, the country still leads the world in retaining a commitment to the free exercise of religion, and plenty of citizens continue openly to take both public and private cues from their understanding of a divine order to things. Yet, the costs and restrictions for such citizens in doing so appear to be on the rise, at least in some quarters. If, in Lincoln’s day, America’s dedication to human equality was propositional where a national embrace of God’s providential role was basically a given, today the reverse seems to be true. The full significance and extent to which this is true is impossible to say. However, a genuine grasp of the whole wisdom of the Gettysburg Address should brace us for any coming test as a nation of faith, even as it leads us to a just celebration of the progress we have made in extending liberty to all.

Matthew Holland is the president of Utah Valley University and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.