The Gettysburg Address, Part Two (Dedicated to a Proposition)
When I talk about this speech in workshops, I never know how much to assume teachers already know, or whether my ‘givens’ and their ‘givens’ are likely to be compatible. We cover so many different things in so many different ways… there’s very little we can assume to be universal in Social Studies content knowledge (or pedagogy, for that matter). And that’s OK.
It’s much less complicated with students, who are gracious enough to hardly know anything ever – even if we’ve actually covered it explicitly only moments before!
All to say, this is just my take on the speech. It’s not exactly original – I mean, I read books from time to time and pick up things here and there – but I don’t think I’ve lifted it whole from any one source. If I’m mistaken, please let me know so I can give credit where due. The uninterrupted text is in the previous post if you wish to revisit before proceeding. I'll wait.
*tap tap tap tap tap tap*
Four score and seven years ago,
We all know this one, right? If ‘score’ = 20, then ‘four score’ = 80… plus 7, 87 years ago. Lincoln gave this speech in 1863, so a little basic math takes us to 1776. Duh.
This matters because Lincoln COULD have talked about the Constitution, ratified around 1788. That was, after all, the document we were supposedly at war defending – the one purporting to form a ‘more perfect union’ than the rather anemic Articles of Confederation which it replaced. But he didn’t.
Lincoln points instead to the year of the Declaration of Independence – the ‘birth’ of our nation and a written statement not only of rebellion, but of ideals. The Constitution has rules about running for the Senate and requiring the various states to play nicely together; the Declaration proclaims all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. The Constitution is functional, but birthed in compromise and politics. The Declaration is idealistic and uninterested in practicalities – it glows and pretty music plays whenever we close our eyes and call its name three times.
Why do we call them our ‘fathers’? What makes someone a ‘father’?
I’m not looking for one of those deep, Level Three, English class answers ("What color is honor? What food would gerunds be if books were meals?"). Biologically - literally - what’s the difference between a ‘dude’ and a ‘dad’?
That’s right – offspring. Making bebbies.
brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty,
Conceived? I always ask what this word means, and we take a bit to discuss.
My students are all in Biology class the same year I have them for American Government. That means at some point they’ll be shown the most fascinating little film. A gang of angry tadpoles, possibly albinos, are chasing down and attacking a golf ball which has presumably done them wrong. Eventually, one will break through, and go in to ransack the place while the rest lose interest and wander off to die. These are very single-minded albino tadpoles.
THAT moment – that’s “conception.”
It’s different from birth, although we often use them interchangeably. But ‘conceived’ is that earliest moment of new life – and it matters where and how you’re conceived. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. If your parents are rich, you’ll gestate differently than if they’re poor. If your parents are Eskimos, chances are good you’ll be Eskimo-ish before even being born. And if you’re the result of Liberty and Founding Fathers getting busy…
and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
I grew up in a pretty orthodox Protestant church. Baby dedications were a big thing. The lil’un would be brought up to the front of the church, we’d ooh and ahh a bit, and the Preacher Man would pray for the tiny critter, the parents, etc. The idea was to ‘dedicate’ the child to God as he or she grows up.
But Baby ‘Merica isn’t dedicated to God – at least according to Lincoln . (Don’t tell the Republicans!) It’s dedicated to an idea, a proposition – that all men are created equal.
What IS a ‘proposition’? We talk about this term in class as well. There are various sorts of ‘propositions’ – I may have a business idea in which I’d like for you to join me, or perhaps I'll ask you to marry me. In those Science classes I referenced earlier, though, they use a different word for their kinds of propositions.
They call them ‘hypotheses’ – official-sounding ideas about how things work or what they do. And do you know what we do with a hypothesis, once formulated?
You test it, to see if it works.
I dunno… maybe I’m overthinking this. Lincoln learned most of what he knew reading by the fireplace late at night. It’s really not fair to attribute all of this ‘Enlightenment’ style thinking to him when he’s just trying to give a motivational speech. I’ll shut up and we’ll continue with what he actually said.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war,
I always stop here and ask my kids which civil war he means. It usually takes them a second to figure out how to say what they’re sure is correct. “THE Civil War – the ONE THEY’RE IN.”
Yep. And why were we fighting this war?
testing whether that nation -- or any nation so conceived and so dedicated -- can long endure.
HA! I SO CALLED THAT ONE! I TOLD YOU HE WAS DOING IT ON PURPOSE! **SmugHappyDance**
We have our hypothesis – that ‘all men are created equal’. It’s right there in our own Declaration of Independence. We built an entire nation on this premise, conceived in ‘Liberty’ by our ‘Fathers’. Now we’re testing that hypothesis.
Does that work? This… ‘all men are created equal’ – can you run a country based on that, or will it fail?
Note that the results aren’t merely for us – that would be pressure enough. This war, according to Lincoln, is about whether THIS nation can survive built on this hypothesis, and by extension whether ANY nation with similar values – so conceived and so dedicated – can long endure.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
Which battlefield would that be? Come now, I know you know this one. I’ll wait…
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’s worth stopping at this point to make sure we’re all on the same page – especially since Lincoln is setting us up. We’re gathered to dedicate a cemetery, some ground, for those who died in this war.
Died… why? So “that nation might live.” That nation dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” To prove that this was true, and that you can build a country on such a foundation. They died, according to Lincoln, to prove a hypothesis.
This, incidentally, would have been news to many of the men being honored that day. Most thought they were fighting for the Constitution, the Union, maybe their states or families, or just because they were annoyed with the people on the other side. A few sensed the long game, but it was hardly the norm.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
Well, that’s a relief, given the months of planning and the four hours we’ve already been standing here doing it. Woulda been a shame to find out it was all one big faux pas.
‘But’ may be one of the most powerful and underrated words in the English language. And this ‘but’ – Lincoln’s ‘but’ – is a big one. That's right. Lincoln had a very big ‘but’, and we're going to look at it next time.
RELATED POST: The Gettysburg Address, Part One (After Everett)
RELATED POST: The Gettysburg Address, Part Three (Lincoln's Big 'But')