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Researcher: Gettysburg Address still has plenty to teach us 150 years later

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

LAWRENCE  — Seven score and 10 years ago, a beleaguered leader stood before a solemn scene and spoke 272 words — words that still echo through the halls of American schools and statehouses.

Jennifer WeberOn Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery. The entire speech was so concise that the photographer covering the event did not have time to capture the president actually giving the address, according to Jennifer Weber, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

“Lincoln had a gift. He had the gift of a poet — being able to crystalize big ideas into a few words,” Weber said. “It’s etched in our memories in part because it is a beautiful piece; it’s one of the greatest pieces of writing in American letters.”

Weber’s teaching and research focuses on the Civil War, especially the seams where political, social and military history meet. She has written extensively on the topic, including the book “Copperheads,” about the antiwar movement in the North, and “Summer’s Bloodiest Days,” a children’s book about the Battle of Gettysburg, which was named in 2011 as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for Social Studies.

The Gettysburg Address captured the aims of the American Civil War effort precisely, Weber said.

“It’s about saving the union, and when Lincoln talks about a ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth,’ he’s talking about a republican (lowercase 'r') form of government. There was only one other country on the planet that had that form of government at the time. And that was Switzerland. Lincoln was very concerned about saving the republic not just because it was his country, but also because of what it meant to the world,” she said.

And, of course, the “new birth of freedom” means emancipation of slaves.

Lincoln had always opposed slavery, once writing to a friend, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” But he was also a realist and understood that the practice was protected by the Constitution. The war pushed him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which later was formalized with the 13th Amendment.

“Lincoln took it literally that all men, regardless of color, were created equal. He sought very specifically to hold the U.S. to the promise that was set out at its founding, in a way that other people had not quite put together before,” Weber said.

Lincoln was also a great politician, Weber said, understanding give and take. He was not so far in front of public opinion as to lose support for his actions. But by the time of the Gettysburg Address, he was firmly committed to the dual war aims of ending slavery and saving the union.

“This was his chance to lay down the marker and also to acknowledge the tremendous loss of life that had taken place in the war already by that point. He needed to motivate Americans to stick with to see that these men shall not have died in vain,” Weber said.

Historians regard Lincoln  as perhaps more spiritual than religious. He did not attend church as an adult and never joined a church. But he felt a deep responsibility for the loss of life in the war, and he believed that slavery was morally wrong.

He also turned to the Bible as a source of thought and writing.

“Lincoln is such an interesting guy,” Weber said. “He had maybe nine months of formal education. Everything else he learned was self-taught. He read the Bible, Shakespeare and Aesop’s Fables. You can particularly see the influence of the Bible and Shakespeare in the Gettysburg Address.”

While current political and ideological divisions among Americans may seem parallel to the years leading up to the Civil War, Weber warns not to draw a direct correlation.

“I would not at all say we are on the way to civil war,” she said. “At the same time, what you saw in the 1850s was a total breakdown of the political process with the people who could not or would not compromise. With Lincoln, you saw someone who was a very, very gifted communicator who was able to make people understand what he was doing and why. He kept them in the loop. The Gettysburg Address is a great example of that.”