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Lincoln-related information, including Frequently Asked Questions (How tall was he? Did he have a middle name? Is it true that he had a patent on an invention?).

A Gettysburg Address madlib!



To Free or Not to Free, That is the Question

Abe shows me his writings
Abe shows me his writings

"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..." Sound familiar? Are your eyes rolling because you've heard this speech so many times you can recite it by heart? It's hard to appreciate from our point of view just how revolutionary President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address was. Within the short span of 272 words, he laid out a spiritual vision and purpose for the United States of America not witnessed since the Declaration of Independence.


Bad Turkey Day / Being homeless for these nine months can cause you to have some bad days

Even though Abe Lincoln is now considered one of our great heroes, during his own time, he was widely loathed by both radical anti-slavery abolitionists and slave-supporting Southerners, who chose to secede rather than live under a Lincoln presidency. The Gettysburg Address also signified a revolution in Lincoln. The Civil War was initially fought just to preserve the Union. Slavery, and the rights of blacks, was a side issue for Lincoln. With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln made the War inevitably come to mean a fight for the freedom of African Americans. To see the evolution in Lincoln's strategy regarding the slave question, we now turn to an old married couple, Nicholas and Theodora, both involved in the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts, but with differing views on Lincoln and his ways. Let's listen in on their conversations.


1860 Presidential Election: Lincoln voted President in four-person race

Nicholas: Rejoice! We finally have the first President in the White House who shares our sympathy and passion for the plight of the Negro. What a momentous occasion! I know that President Lincoln, in his soul, abhors the institution of slavery, even as he may not have been that explicit about it during the campaign. Our Southern citizens are so frightened that they may be brought to judgment for their hideous crimes. Now, truly, perhaps, we have a chance at securing the blessings of liberty for all.

Theodora: Whom are you kidding? Lincoln is just another two-faced politician who talks the talk only when it suits his purpose. He has no intention of freeing the slaves, and he doesn't really care about them. He even had the nerve to criticize us abolitionists because, as he said, "The promulgation of abolition doctrines tends to increase rather than abate its evils." When they originally wanted to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia (DC), he said this would only be constitutional if the people voted to do so. Spoken like a true lawyer. Did he help us organize against those awful Fugitive Slave Acts. No, he told a friend, "I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, but I bite my lips and keep quiet." What kind of moral leadership is that? In fact, when they wrote the legislation to end slavery in DC, he inserted a clause saying that DC authorities had to arrest and return any fugitive slaves. Our friend, Wendell Phillips, calls him "that slavehound from Illinois." So, no, I don't trust him when he preaches about the equality of the races. I don't think he believes it in his heart, and I certainly won't look to him to finally eradicate slavery.

Nicholas: Ah, but Theodora, even Wendell recognizes the possibilities we now have because of our victory. As he says, "For the first time in our history, the slave has chosen a President of the United States... Not an Abolitionist, hardly an antislavery man, Mr. Lincoln consents to represent an antislavery idea. With fair effort, we may soon change him for knight, bishop, or queen, and sweep the board." I think it's up to us to hold Lincoln's feet to the fire, and if we do, great things can happen.

The bloodiest battle in US history was fought here. Gettysburg was the last time the South would try to invade the North's territory
The bloodiest battle in US history was fought here. Gettysburg was the last time the South would try to invade the North's territory

March 1862

Theodora: Are you still so hopeful, dear, having heard the President say in his inaugural address, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so?" We're in the middle of this terrible war, and it's not about slaves, or freedom, or justice, to him! It's about preserving this holy Union of ours. He wrote to the newspaper and said, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it." There is no Christian morality in this nation of ours.

Nicholas: Lincoln will listen to us. He has no choice. Without us, his government is in disrepair. We will water him so that he does listen to our demands, and make this war a war for justice for the slaves. We have been flooding emancipation petitions into Congress. I think by the end, Congress will have received 400,000 pieces of mail from us. That's unheard of in our country's history. Abe can't ignore that. Plus, he did say at the end of his letter to the newspaper that, "I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free." He has to tend to the needs of the country, that's his biggest job. I'm sure if there is a way to help the slaves, he will.

Tourist trap Gettysburg where it's all about Lincoln
Tourist trap Gettysburg where it's all about Lincoln

January 1, 1863: The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation

Theodora: What a sham of an order! How dare he issue this now, because we happened to have done well in Antietam. He wants to free the blacks so they can join the Union cause, not because he sees them as equal human beings in the eyes of God. It's only part of his military strategy! You notice that the proclamation states, "All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." It then goes on to list very carefully all the places that have seceded. In other words, it's OK to own other human beings, as long as you support the Union.

Nicholas: Theodora, must you insist on such cynicism on such a day? True, this is a limited decree, but it still calls for celebration! To the Negroes in the South, it must be music to their ears. Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, down in DC said, in his church, the men are squealing, women are fainting, dogs are barking, and whites and blacks are shaking hands as cannons roar in the background. Is that not a glorious picture? Plus, it leaves no doubt that Lincoln was committed to ending slavery in the Confederacy, on the ground that it was an act of justice. It commits this country's military, naval, and judiciary systems to the defense of slaves' freedom. That's a wonderful step. And now the War effort has become about justice and freedom for blacks, not just about the Union's survival. Even if the Proclamation was issued to try and lure blacks to become Union soldiers, is that not a precious thing that they can now fight for their own liberty? I hear that many blacks are already walking off the plantations, singing songs of praise to Lincoln, and excitedly taking up Union arms.

The room Lincoln slept in the night before the Gettysburg Address
The room Lincoln slept in the night before the Gettysburg Address

November 19,1863: Gettysburg Address

Nicholas: Now Theodora, you had to have loved that speech. I had tears in my eyes, thinking of the 50,000 soldiers who died at Gettysburg, the bloodiest day in American history. Here, Lincoln says the war had an overarching moral purpose, to help fulfill our principle that "all men are created equal." And we helped bring that about. We should be proud.

Theodora: I finally agree. I think Abe did come around, but only because people like me wouldn't let him off the hook. This war always had to be for the liberation of the Negro. I'm glad he acknowledged that, and I find his final sentence indescribably moving: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…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." There is much to be done in our quest for justice. I fear it will get worse for the Negro before it gets better. Lincoln admitted years before that "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races." Blacks can't vote, they can't attend school with whites, they can't serve on juries. The fight goes on, but the accomplishments of Lincoln are gigantic steps forward.

Today, African Americans are no longer slaves, but they still face immense discrimination in the judicial system, in bank loans, in housing, and in poorly funded schools. President Lyndon Johnson said in the 1960s that, "Until justice is blind, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men's skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact." Lincoln's actions altered the course of American history, but it should be remembered that Lincoln didn't free the slaves himself. Your ordinary, average American citizen played a huge role, and if we are to continue on the road to liberty for all, it will be more up to people like Theodora and Nicholas and us than any politician.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - And the answer is "c) We are ignorant of our past"
Nick - The bloodiest square mile in America
Stephanie - I'm nine but I can still fight!
Teddy - It's never enough to just get by
Making A Difference - When our wars destroy our children