H. L. Mencken was determined to separate meaning from the myth:
The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and most famous oration in American history. . . Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.
But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—“that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into the battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, at a ceremony marking the 88th anniversary of the address, discerns Lincoln's awareness of the world-historical moment:
Lincoln saw the war in its global dimensions. . . As Lincoln saw it, the Confederate states had rejected two fundamental precepts of democracy. First, in refusing to accept him as their President and making his election their justification for withdrawing from the Union, they had violated the first rule of democratic government, the obligation of a minority to abide by the result of an election. . .
Second, in making slavery the foundation stone of their new government, the Confederacy was renouncing the doctrine of the equal rights of man in favor of the creed of the master race, an idea that Lincoln abhorred. . . .
When we realize that Lincoln saw the dissolution of the Union as a threat to democratic aspirations throughout the world, his words at Gettysburg become more meaningful. Chancellorsville, Antietam, Chickamauga and Gettysburg were deciding more than the fate of these United States. Americans were dying for the new, revolutionary idea of the free man, even as they had died at Bunker Hill and Yorktown. They were dying to save the hopes of all people everywhere.Of related interest:
- Joshua Zeitz of American Heritage on “The Radicalism of the Gettysburg Address”
- Listen to the Gettysburg Address read by Sam Waterston, Ken Burns, and others
- The Gettysburg Address exhibit at The Library of Congress