Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is underappreciated as a shift in the way that the United States imagines freedom, according to Professor John Burt (ENG). At a talk given on Saturday, Burt argued that most Americans overlook the significance of the Gettysburg Address because they think they know it. He explained that when something is a ubiquitous part of the culture, everyone has a general idea of what it is from hearing about it so much, but that this metaculture can stop people from looking closer and truly examining the thing itself.
While most Americans are familiar with the famous opening words of the speech, and that many may even know the full speech, few have actually given thought to the words that they have heard so many times, Burt added.
Burt started out by illustrating the significance of the phrase “Four score and seven years ago,” a phrase he said most Americans have heard often enough not to think about. The date Lincoln chose to highlight as the beginning of the country, Burt said, is significant: rather than point to the ratification of the Constitution and the beginning of the United States as a country, he pointed to the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of America as a nation.
Acknowledging criticism of Thomas Jefferson as hypocritical on the issue of slavery, Burt talked about how Lincoln nonetheless framed the idea “that all men are created equal” as the central promise of America, and one which it had thus far failed to live up to, but which it must never stop striving towards. He also noted that that phrase changed from a “truth [which is held to be] self evident,” to a “proposition” from Jefferson’s use of it to Lincoln’s, a change which reflected the centrality of that ideal to the Civil War.
Lincoln’s word choice throughout the speech is significant, Burt said, because of the meaning that those words conveyed. For example, the use of words such as “conceived,” birth” and “perish” to refer to the United States and the symbolism of the country as a living thing, rather than a mechanistic system of governance. He also pointed out the significance of framing the Civil War as a struggle not only for the survival of one democracy, but for all democracies, and the very idea of democracy. Lastly, of course, was the fact that the living were not dedicating the graves of the dead for what they have done, the dead were dedicating the living to the cause of what they must do.
In addition to being a professor of English at Brandeis, Burt is the author of a book titled “Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism.” During his talk he explained the meaning of that title, saying that Lincoln was bitterly aware of what he could and could not do to further live up to that promise during his presidency and his lifetime, and yet chose to do what he could rather than aim for an unattainable ideal. He also added that Lincoln himself can be seen as a quintessentially tragic figure in American history because of his constant agonizing over whether he was doing the right thing or doing enough.