Three Minutes That Transformed America

“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.”

This statement is true on its face. Honest Abe would never lie. But the founding fathers actually meant to say that all rich white men are created equal. The US Constitution explicitly condones slavery and restricts the right to vote to white men who own property.

Abraham Lincoln changed that in three minutes on November 19, 1863, with 272 well-chosen words. He didn’t scribble it on the back of an envelope on the train, as you may have been told; that’s hooey. In fact he worked on it for a long time and showed it to a number of people several days before the dedication.

In his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills has created an invaluable work of scholarship which won the Pulitzer Prize, as well it should have. It contains a wealth of information about this seminal moment in American history, tons of stuff I never knew before.

Wills shows how Lincoln drew on sources as far back as the funeral oration of Pericles in Athens in 431 BCE, and details his indebtedness to people like Edward Everett, who gave a three-hour speech at the same ceremony, and the abolitonist Theodore Parker, who was jailed for his opposition to slavery.

The 50,000 dead at Gettysburg had been buried in shallow graves. Often arms and legs were sticking up out of the ground. Something had to be done. That’s why they had the reburial and the dedication.

“Lincoln is here not only to sweeten the air of Gettysburg,” Wills writes, “but to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution — not as William Lloyd Garrison had, by burning an instrument that countenanced slavery. He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to its spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise, bringing it to its own indictment.

“By implicitly doing this, he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked.

“The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological baggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America.

“Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”

Wills points out that some astute conservatives immediately objected to this swindle, in particular the editorial writer for the Chicago Times, who pointed out that the Constitution didn’t make any mention of equality and clearly sanctioned slavery:

“It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

The Times really covered themselves in glory on that point. Indeed Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese, and his heirs in the Bush administration, have often referred to the ‘original intent’ of the Constitution, meaning they want to discard the Fourteenth Amendment and all this stuff about equal rights.

“Their job would be comparatively easy,” Wills writes, “if they did not have to work against the values created by the Gettysburg Address.”

Does this mean the Republican Party has departed utterly and completely from the beliefs of its most prominent founder, Abraham Lincoln? In a word, yes.