On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln got at least one prediction flat wrong: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here . . . .” That’s not quite how the thing worked out. My mother has a 1953 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which I have made her swear a solemn oath to “heir” to me (out in these parts, “heir” is a verb). Part of why I like it is that, being from when it is, it lacks all the bilge-water tripe uttered by the sundry darlings of the lefties over the next 50-plus years; the reader is spared all the claptrap about how awful Europeans are, and how the world would be much more swell a place if only someone would put the U.S. in its place &c. &c. &c. We’re also spared excerpts from what some speech writer put into some hack politician’s mouth, as well as similar offerings from the ghost-written memoirs of people like Dear Leader. When you read a quotation in there from, for example, Clemenceau, you can be pretty sure that those were actually Clemenceau’s words. And at the risk of hazarding a prediction, in 100 years Dear Leader’s legacy will still be able to stand beside the Lion’s all day and not cast a shadow.
In any event, what has always struck me about that particular book is that, by a wide margin, the longest single quotation is the Gettysburg Address, in full (it’s also unusual in that respect, although that is most likely a result of its brevity). In terms of political thought, it’s a rather extraordinary speech. It was of course delivered in the midst of what Lincoln described as “a great civil war” which had begun, as Lincoln himself had pointed out to I believe it was Horace Greeley, who had demanded he take positive action to end slavery, as a war specifically to save the Union, and only to save the Union. Lincoln said as much: he would save the Union whether it meant freeing all, some, or none of the slaves.
And what Union was it Lincoln set out to save? The Union of the Constitution. That Union was about many things. It was about creating a defensible polity (and people today forget just how fragile the U.S. was when the guns finally fell silent in 1783). It was about transforming a gaggle of ex-colonies, no small number of which viewed each other with only slightly less suspicion as they did Britain, into a single polity, and making that place a single economic space. It was about spanning the horns of simultaneously creating sufficient central power that the country could endure and not fall play-thing to predatory or just cynical European powers, and yet also so arranging the attributes of that power that its citizens could never say of it, as the motion was made (and carried, too, if I recall correctly) that the power of the crown “had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished.” It was about trying so to create commonalities of interest that the bane of republics historically — faction — would not form, grow, and eventually swallow the nation (we haven’t falsified that proposition yet, I’d observe, and based upon the gloating about the particulars of Dear Leader’s recent electoral triumph we may not pull it off).
What that Union was not about was “equality” in any greater than an abstract sense, if that. The three-fifths clause is only the most widely-cited example. But the original document made no effort to guarantee any degree of uniformity of political or civil rights, beyond to say that Congress (and here I must observe how comically incorrect the judiciary has been in this respect) may not do certain things. The original Constitution (and I do include the Bill of Rights, as it was presented for ratification so immediately) does stipulate that certain rights shall not be abridged (notice it does not say by whom), such as speech, assembly, petition, and the keeping and bearing of arms. It also provides that right of “the people” (the same “people” as mentioned in the Second Amendment, by the way) to be secure in their persons and property from unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be diminished. [N.b. I’ve always wanted to hear how it was that the exact same draftsmen who spoke of “the people” in the Fourth Amendment and by it meant individuals somehow used precisely the same words two amendments previously, yet really meant to say “the states, as states,” when, just a few amendments later, they demonstrate explicitly that they understood both concepts of “people”=individuals and “states”=the different political entities of the Union, and drew a plain distinction between them, when they provided that the powers not granted by the constitution to the federal government, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the people or to the states respectively. Maybe I’m just dumb.] There’s also no equal protection clause in the original Constitution.
So much for the Union Lincoln had said he was going to war to preserve. He gets to Gettysburg, and in that speech holds aloft in blazing rhetoric not the dry structures of the Constitution, with its “shall be vested” and so forth, but the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .” You won’t find that in the Constitution. According to Lincoln now, the nation’s very foundation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This was something new indeed. It was something sufficiently novel to his fellow citizens, then and for generations later, that it took the Civil Rights Movement to actualize what Lincoln spoke, 149 years ago today, over a newly laid-out cemetery.
In 1887 there died a young American woman, a poet. She was Jewish; her family had been in North America since colonial days. This is important in light of the words for which she will forever remain known.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
As mentioned, what is unusual about Emma Lazarus is that, while Jewish, her family did not come to America as part of the tired, poor, huddled masses that flooded in between the end of the Civil War and World War I, and particularly not among the hosts of Eastern European Jewry fleeing the Tsar’s pogroms and the resentments of their fellow citizens (although they weren’t fully citizens, most places) as the disruptions of industrialization turned on its ear a world that had grown stable, and brutal, and poor over centuries.
The interesting thing about Emma Lazarus’s death on November 19, 1887, and the Gettysburg Address 24 years before, on the same date, is that it was precisely the propositions enunciated in the Declaration, and which Lincoln had elevated to the very organizing principle of the U.S., that brought the tired, poor, huddled masses. Immigration to the U.S. had always been popular, and the recent immigrants had always written back home in lyrical praise of their new country and its fecundity. Immigrants had fled disaster before, from the general grinding poverty of the Scots-Irish to the acute catastrophe of the potato famine. They’d come seeking religious freedom, freedom from the press-gang into the maw of the new mass armies Napoleon had bequeathed to the continent. Many, if not most, came just to be able to own some land. But it seems to me, from what I’ve read, that the promise of Equality, the Land of Unlimited Possibilities, as a beacon to immigrants is peculiarly a post-Civil War phenomenon. America as the New Holy Land appears (and again, I am comfortable that there are sufficient counter-examples as to keep this well within the bounds of over-generalization) to have arisen in the minds of the common man, from the shtetl to the tenement to the peasant piling his dung heap as a consequence precisely of the Declaration’s statement of principle being placed firmly front and center in America’s self-understanding. Is it unreasonable to wonder whether, had Lincoln not been martyred, had his every pronouncement not been elevated nearly to holy writ, that the reinterpretation of the country’s foundation which he offered 149 years ago today would have taken, and stuck? That America’s self-understanding as a nation of poor, tired, huddled masses would have become so central to what we are about?