The 150th Anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is receiving widespread media coverage today – much of it marred by an astonishing degree of basic ignorance about the speech and its historical significance.
As a public service and in honor of this profound moment in American history, allow me to touch on a few basic facts about The Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln, and the Gettysburg address we celebrate today.
The Civil War was a battle against treason
The American Civil War began when a confederation of radical separatists declared that they would no longer acknowledge the democratic sovereignty of the duly elected government of the United States of America.
This was not, as modern revisionists like to describe it, merely a philosophical or cultural disagreement playing out between two legitimate political factions. Southerners, unable to advance their agenda through the normal democratic process, rejected it altogether. And they did not simply reject democracy – they rejected civilization itself, choosing to impose their will through sheer brute force. Instead of negotiating with their fellow Americans, they decided to murder their fellow Americans.
We call it a war because of its scale, but the Civil War is more accurately understood as a law-enforcement or counter-terrorism operation against the largest criminal conspiracy in American history. The triumph of the Union was the triumph of the United States government against murderous traitors.
The deadliest terrorist attack in American history
Forget 9/11. Forget Pearl Harbor. Forget the Oklahoma City bombings. The attack on the United States in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was by far the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history.
More than three thousand American troops died during that attack in 1863. By the end, an astonishing 14,531 were wounded and 5,369 were captured or missing. Fortunately, the United States managed to kill, wound or capture more than 23,231 traitors from Southern states – a crucial victory that marked the turning point in our government’s anti-terrorism campaign.
Our greatest liberal president
Between the soft-focus Centrist portrayals of a reluctant, morally conflicted president and cynical, patently dishonest attempts by Republicans to claim him as their own, it’s easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln was a big government liberal President who made the wise but difficult decision to literally destroy a political opposition dedicated to undermining his democratic authority.
Abraham Lincoln did not magnanimously allow his right wing revanchist opposition to seize control of the courts – unlike President Obama, for instance, who has passively allowed Republicans to defy his Constitutional authority to appoint judges. He did not allow politicians and citizens to simply nullify laws they didn’t like – unlike President Obama, for instance, who has passively allowed Republicans’ attempts to willfully ignore the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.
Instead, Lincoln declared:
Whereas the laws of the United States have been for some time past, and now are opposed, and the execution thereof obstructed…I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power vested in me by the Constitution, and the laws…hereby do call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union…to cause the laws to be duly executed.
Put plainly, in case there’s anything unclear about this: Abraham Lincoln understood the Civil War as a legal enforcement action against criminals, and authorized the United States military to force them to comply.
In memory of the victors
In that light, it is utter madness to pretend, in the words of the Associated Press, that the Gettysburg Address was “a speech that symbolized…the sacrifices made by Union and Confederate forces.”
Lincoln is clear: his speech was meant “to dedicate a portion of that field” in Gettysburg “as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that the nation might live.” The “unfinished work which they who fought here…so nobly advanced” – the “cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion” was in defense of the Union, so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
So it isn’t just some academic or trivial mistake to suppose that Lincoln was praising Confederate terrorists as noble participants in some legitimate political struggle. To describe the Gettysburg address as anything other than a memorial for the Union soldiers who perished in defense of the United States is to directly contradict Lincoln’s message, and to sympathize with criminals and murderers who deserve to live in infamy. It is the direct equivalent of uncritically waxing poetic about the “sacrifices” of Japanese kamikazes or 9/11 hijackers.
Oh yeah, and it’s also to sympathize with monstrous racists who thought that it was okay to force people of color to work without compensation and against their will. You know, that little thing.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.