The Gettysburg Address, Part Two (Dedicated To A Proposition)

Lincoln At Gettysburg (Blue)When addressing any famous historical event or document in a conference setting, it’s difficult to predict how much teachers might already know, or how familiar with the content they may already be. 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 covered it explicitly only moments before! That’s the approach we’re going to take with this particular document, and hopefully no one will find these observations or explanations so painfully obvious as to be offended they were even discussed.

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 they were supposedly at war defending – the one purporting to form a “more perfect union” than the “firm league of friendship” outlined in the Articles of Confederation. 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.

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers

Why do we call them our “fathers”? What makes someone a “father”?

We’re 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. You’re a “father” if you’ve “fathered” something. Again, duh. 

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty,

Conceived? That’s an intentional word. 

Most students take a Biology class sometime early in their high school journey. 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…

a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

If you’re at all familiar with old school orthodox churches across the Midwest, you know that baby dedications are a big thing. The lil’un is brought up to the front of the church, people “oooh!” and “aww…” a bit, and the Preacher Man prays for the tiny critter, its parents, etc. The idea is 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”? There are various sorts. Alyessia may have a business idea in which she’d like for Abdias to invest. Abdias may surprise her by instead asking her to marry him. But in those Science classes I referenced earlier, 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 you do with a hypothesis, once formulated?

You test it, to see if it works.

At this point several of you are beginning to wonder if perhaps we’re overthinking this a bit. 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. Perhaps we should simply stick with what he actually said.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war,

Civil War SoldiersWhich civil war? 

It’s fun to stop and ask that in class. Half of them panic, sure they don’t know, while the rest worry they’ll give the obvious answer and somehow be wrong because it must be a trick. 

“Um… THE Civil War? The one… they were IN?”

Yep. And why were we fighting this war?

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation -- or any nation so conceived and so dedicated -- can long endure. 

“Testing”? As in testing whether or not the hypothesis that “all men are created equal” is in fact a viable foundation on which to build a nation? That sort of “testing”?

Maybe we weren’t overthinking it after all. 

Note that the results weren’t merely for those currently involved; that would be pressure enough. This war, according to Lincoln, was about whether ANY nation with similar ideals and values (“so conceived and so dedicated”) can long endure. That’s how science works – even political science. 

We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

Which battlefield would that be? Come now, you know this one…

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. 

Wait, what?

Lincoln is setting us up. He opens with some general statements unlikely to provoke resistance, then acknowledges current circumstances while subtly reframing a few things – none bigger than here. 

They died “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 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,

But.

But?

But!

‘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')

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