“The country is in a dangerous place. Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope seems elusive.”
Joe Biden, Democratic Party presidential nominee, spoke those words in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 6. He deserves special praise for this admirable attempt to place our current nasty, poisonous political climate in the wider context of history.
The Battle of Gettysburg raged during July 1-3, 1863. The Union Army of the Potomac turned back the daring invasion of Pennsylvania led by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. They withdrew from the field during the night of July 4, American Independence Day.
Appropriately, Biden began by quoting President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which early on emphasizes the phrase “all men are created equal.” Garry Wills’ brilliant book “Lincoln at Gettysburg” argues President Lincoln at that moment integrated our Declaration of Independence into our United States Constitution, thereby radically altering the future for our nation.
Lincoln shrewdly used his speech at the battlefield to redefine the national purpose. Over 50,000 men from both sides were killed, wounded and missing in the brutal three days of combat that shocked people throughout the divided nation. That bloody sacrifice sanctified and confirmed the president’s radical pronouncement.
Lincoln’s skills were evident from the start of the Civil War. First, he maneuvered the South into firing the first shots, against a ship carrying supplies for Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
In January 1863, he raised the stakes from preserving the Union to ending slavery. The limited Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, following defeats, provided opportunity for the Emancipation Proclamation.
The declaration ended slavery only in the Confederate states. Slavery was not touched in Northern states, including the vital Border States with strong pro-slavery sentiments.
In the last year of the war, Lincoln was able to initiate the abolition of slavery completely through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He perceived accurately that once the Confederacy was defeated, much of the anti-slavery sentiment would dissipate.
The film “Lincoln” provides a reasonably accurate portrayal of this tremendous effort, including sometimes crude political horse trading, unsavory and unattractive even in that time in our history. Then, as now, realism at times recommends employing ugly means to secure results that strengthen the public good.
Second, Lincoln was an insightful strategist. The Civil War was the first modern total war, and the president grasped early that economics was as vital as armed forces.
The agrarian South lacked the industrial base necessary to sustain a long general war. Lincoln immediately implemented Union naval blockades along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, plus gaining control of the major rivers.
Coinciding with Gettysburg, Gen. Ulysses Grant captured the strategically vital city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. The long siege involved demanding military attacks, maneuvers, complex engineering on both land and water, careful planning and patience. Lincoln promoted Grant to field command of all Union armies.
In contrast, Lincoln became enraged at Gen. George Meade, commander of the Union Army at Gettysburg, for not destroying Lee’s retreating army. He wrote an insulting letter to Meade, condemning failure. He did not send it.
Third, Lincoln was a brilliant writer and speaker, but we can define the Gettysburg Address best as one particularly visible rhetorical tip of enormous, underlying, continuous effort.
Former Vice President Biden deserves thanks along with praise. He reminds us of our core values, by implication of today’s relative stability.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org