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Lincoln’s enduring lessons

On the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, we must renew liberty and equality as that speech defined them

A bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln stands in the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster

Lincoln’s enduring lessons
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“Four score and seven years ago.” This iconic phrase opens one of the most famous speeches in American history—Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. 

Lincoln spoke as part of a ceremony dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. Less than five months before, the Union Army of the Potomac had won a decisive victory there over the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, but at great cost. 

Yesterday, Nov. 19 marked the 160th anniversary of this speech. Though grounded in its own historical moment, Lincoln’s address contains perceptive insights for our own time. 

In his remarks, Lincoln framed the Civil War as more than a question of national survival. That survival involved a conflict over national identity, itself rooted in a dispute about the nature of justice and America’s relationship—original and ongoing—to that justice. 

Our 16th president asserted that our country had been, “Conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The battles then raging directly pertained to the institution of race-based, chattel slavery. But slavery, and therefore the war, ultimately concerned whether we affirmed those two claims as true, thus by force of arms “testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

We do not, as did Lincoln and his audience, stand “amidst a great Civil War” regardless of what some professional instigators may say. Yet our crises do test anew whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality can continue. 

True, no one now calls for enslaving other human beings. We all claim fidelity both to liberty and to equality. Our dispute comes from what we mean by those terms. A significant part of “We, the People” demand a distorted view of both. In fact, one can trace all of our besetting cultural evils to some perversion of these two concepts. 

First, we have conflated liberty with license. This conflation we see legally articulated in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that created a right to same-sex marriage. There, Justice Anthony Kennedy described liberty as moral “autonomy,” an autonomy so expansive as to include the right “to define and express [one’s] identity.” The sexual revolution of which Obergefell is a milestone has pushed this conception of liberty beyond all bounds of sanity. Even one’s own gender now falls within the ever-expanding sphere of liberty understood as self-definition. 

Lincoln said the “new birth of freedom” that he called for would happen “under God.”

Second, we have distorted equality. In the name of gender fairness, we reject the complementary natures of men and women. Here being equal is falsely equated with being identical. Moreover, the same people who call for equality between the sexes then demand the right to violently destroy the lives of the unborn. Our cultural definition of liberty as moral autonomy joins with these claims, translating into demands for easily-accessed (and financed) abortion. In the name of equality we deny the equality of the most vulnerable among us. This same hypocrisy is reaching ever scarier results in euthanasia, especially as playing out in our Canadian neighbors to the north. 

Lincoln would have had none of this perverse liberty and scoffed at such a grotesque equality. The key words in the Gettysburg Address answering these contemporary views is the phrase, “under God.” 

Regarding liberty, Lincoln said the “new birth of freedom” that he called for would happen “under God.” It is this positioning in relation to the Deity that assures liberty is something other than license. For the liberty-as-moral-autonomy view seeks to baptize a sin as old as the Garden of Eden. The temptation of the Fall was that we shall be like God in making our own truth and our own justice. Yet our being “Under God,” as Lincoln tells it, not only distinguishes us from God; it also confirms our subservience to Him.

With human equality, Lincoln repeated the claim of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Though not using the exact terms, this phrase also affirms our position “under God.” Our equality does not originate in a statute passed by human legislators. It is not earned by being good or following some ancient tradition. Our equality comes directly from God and comes in the act of creating us. God has woven equality into the fabric of our being, as part of our very humanity. Just as this truth energized past attempts to undermine and overturn race-based slavery, so it should drive present efforts to undermine and overturn abortion, euthanasia, and all other efforts to deny the equal right to life. 

On this anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, we should pray for our own political and cultural “new birth of freedom.” This new birth would properly perceive freedom as conformity to God’s truth and equality as protecting all made in His image. But we also should pray for even better. We should pray for a spiritual new birth among our unbelieving fellow citizens. That new birth would break the bonds of sin, not just the chains of human slavery. That new birth would bring eternal life, not just legal protection from womb to tomb. Lincoln hoped that popular government would last forever. Let us have a higher hope in God’s Kingdom, which we know “shall not perish from the earth.”

Adam M. Carrington

Adam is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published by Lexington Books in 2017. In addition to scholarly publications, his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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