When I was in junior high school, one of the many things I recall having to do was memorize the Gettysburg Address. I think it was for a history class or a civics course, but I don’t rightly recall. It was a long time ago and I have striven mightily to erase from my memory every one of the nine years from 4th grade to my senior year in high that the State of California incarcerated me in their miserable, ignorant, cruel and clueless "public" schools.
I’ve only been partially successful, and I still remember too much what the professionals strove to call "education," but what a decent human being with compassion and mercy in his or her heart and little love for the state and its institutions would probably consider ritual humiliation and torture. I don’t see how we can look at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and exclaim in horror and innocence that we have no idea where that kind of behavior came from, or how we can say in good conscience that Americans don’t do that kind of thing.
The kind of people who say those kinds of things obviously never attended state schools, where terror, violence and humiliation are just ways teachers control students (and allow students to control each other). Or they attended far better ones than I did.
Anyway, one of the things I don’t remember is the Gettysburg Address. I remember that I had to memorize it, and I think I required some prompting from Mrs. Comito (who was a reasonably decent and kind teacher, as far as junior high school teachers went). I suspect I got a B. I got lots of B’s. I didn’t have to expend any effort whatsoever to get them, and I deeply and bitterly resented having to do any schoolwork to begin with. I could go on, but I suspect a steaming pile of my school resentments would quickly bore and I’m guessing most of you have lots of resentments of your very own. So you can fill in whatever blanks I leave right here.
I was thinking about that short and famous address by our 16th Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln, the great tyrant himself, not long ago, considering several of its most famous phrases and turns of speech and what they mean. For those of you who, like me, have long forgotten the damn thing, here it is, all 272 words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It’s beautiful, it really is. Whatever Lincoln’s faults as a man, he was a brilliant writer. This is poetry, it flows and could almost make a believer out of anyone. Even as hard-hearted a malcontent as I. They are 272 really very gorgeous words.
They are also nonsense. Absolute, utter, beautiful nonsense.
What interests me most about this little speech is the mystical doctrine of government and nation this speech brings into existence. A doctrine of government and nation as mystical as any doctrine of God (such as Trinity for Christians or Tauhid for Muslims). I’m not opposed to mystical doctrines or deep faith in that which cannot be seen or touched. But such doctrines belong to churches and doctors of theology, to rituals, liturgies, to prayers, to communion and to scriptures. They have absolutely no role to play in either government or statecraft.
What on earth is "government of the people, by the people, for the people" anyway? And how was that government threatened with extinction through secession, especially since the US Constitution — with all its marvelous promises, its Bill of Rights and its triune "limited" government — would still have overseen the rump Union that would still have occupied most of what is now the contiguous 48 states once the Confederacy was independent?
Clearly, government of the people, by the people, for the people is more than just the Constitution. Much more.
Lincoln is right, to an extent, in saying the founders "brought forth a new nation," for while they may have considered the states "sovereign," even the Articles of Confederation speak of "perpetual union." Given how loosely the word sovereignty is tossed around in this country (does anyone really believe the Navajo are "sovereign" in any meaningful sense?), I’m not sure what the phrase "sovereign state" means or has ever really meant. This notion of a greater union, something bigger than the sum of it parts — or its states — predates Lincoln by a long time. He just managed to articulate this sentiment in a way that could grab the imaginations of Americans then and since. It’s the kind of thing you can do when you have such a command of words.
However, the implication is also clear — that unless you have national government, government of all the constituent parts that came into or were created by that union, you cannot have government "of the people, by the people, for the people." You cannot have government of, by, for on a quarter-section in rural Ohio, or San Francisco, or Spokane County, or Vermont, or the Confederate States of America. Why, I’m not sure, but clearly you can’t. It apparently doesn’t seem to matter what the people any of those places want, either.
But the opposite is also true. If the part cannot have what only the whole can have, then the whole must be utterly and completely indivisible in order for it to be the whole. Without any tiny part, it is less than the whole, and loses all of the attributes that accrue solely to whole. Based on this, we can conclude that if any single acre, square foot or possibly even atom of this great land of ours — or any single individual human soul — decides to no longer want the pleasure and privilege of government of the people, by the people, for the people, and opts out, then everyone else is suddenly left without too. Bereft. Lost. It’s an all or nothing proposition, one that must encompass all men or it encompasses none, a doctrine pregnant with the allegiance pledges, school lessons, conscription, the unitary executive, nationalism, militarism, imperialism, globalism and collectivism that were yet to come when Lincoln spoke those words.
And the tyranny that may yet come but that we Americans have always coyly flirted with. For it is not enough that all of us are simply American citizens by dint of naturalization or accident of birth. We must all believe, too. All of us. Must. Maybe all of the time, too. Or government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall perish from the earth.
Lincoln’s ideas, then, impose a slavery little different from the one so many men in blue fought to abolish, a vile servitude to masters not of plantations, but of the state, a servitude much harder to shrug off and escape, one for which there was no haven and no freedom and to which no underground railroad could smuggle.
I’m no fan of slavery. Along with ideas of racial supremacy, I consider it immoral, a wrong that too many people and too many governments have inflicted upon others. There’s much about Southern Culture I dislike: concepts of honor, militarism, tribalism, parochialism. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Confederate soldiers who lay dead at Gettysburg — men whose sacrifices went unhonored by Lincoln’s words because they did not sacrifice or give their lives so that Lincoln’s imagined nation "might live," though if you consider the war a great fiery furnace in which the nation and its people were somehow reforged or remade, another of the esoteric doctrines Lincoln suggests in this speech, then they did, after a fashion and in a way they did not intend — had their own idea of what government of the people, by the people, for the people looked like, what it meant, how it worked. I did not agree with their ideas, but I hardly agree with Lincoln’s either.
And in the absence of a working consensus about what of the people, by the people, for the people means, then the notion backed by the most guns wins. Which is, in fact, what happened.
Lincoln’s words suggest a frightening, all-embracing universalism, one which brokers no dissent, no difference of opinion, and leaves no room for doubt or question or changing of minds. Expand the idea of "the people," that "new birth of freedom" and "the nation" to the whole world, as too many Americans since have been wont to do, and the really horrific possibilities for these mystical ideas become truly frightening to behold. They are doctrines as all-encompassing and totalitarian as the one Leonid Brezhnev would invoke slightly more then a century later when ensuring that once a "people" had been bestowed the "gift" of socialism, they simply were not allowed — even of their own volition — to lay it back down again. Like Christ, the cross was theirs — ours too, maybe — to bear all the way to Golgotha.
Who are the people, these people whose government matters so much? What are they? Can there even be such a thing as government of, by, for people? I intend to address that in my next essay.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.