Lincoln's Gettsyburg Address celebrated, scrutinized
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has been quoted, displayed on walls and revered as much or more than any presidential speech in American history.
Lincoln is considered by many historians as the nation's best president.
Dr. Barry Schwartz, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Georgia, said he probably would consider Lincoln as No. 2 behind George Washington.
Schwartz, the author of a book on Lincoln and another soon to be released, spoke about the president at USC Aiken on Saturday at the invitation of Dr. Michael Fowler, a graphic design professor and artist who shares his friend's fascination with Lincoln.
Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863, during the 19th president's address at the Gettysburg cemetery dedication, almost 150 years ago, Schwartz said.
Ironically, the lead speaker at that event was not Lincoln. A veteran politician and public official, Edward Everett, spoke for two hours before Lincoln took the podium. Everett would soon express his admiration for Lincoln's speech, one he considered far beyond his own.
Lincoln's words that day were a joyous thing, Schwartz said in an abstract, but what was Lincoln actually saying?
There are so many factors: How did newspapers of the time cover the address, and, for that matter, how have the media interpreted it over the many decades since then and especially in this generation, Schwartz asked.
No one can read Lincoln's mind, he said, but one can consider those with the president on the platform.
“Many were Democratic governors who didn't want the war and didn't care about Southerners or slavery,” Schwartz said.
Others surrounding him were from south central Pennsylvania on the Maryland border. Maryland itself would have seceded if Lincoln had not threatened to attack that state, Schwartz said.
Lincoln said “all men are created equal,” and his detractors considered that to mean that black and white people were equal. Lincoln had no such intent, Schwartz said, no more so than Thomas Jefferson did when he penned the Declaration of Independence.
Lincoln knew that Jefferson's declaration in 1776 was about war with the British, not about whites and blacks. He also knew that he had to describe the Civil War as an effort to prevent secession, not for emancipation – surely not in Pennsylvania where people were Confederate sympathizers, Schwartz said.
Still, Lincoln did declare the Emancipation Proclamation, which led to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Again, he was not referring to social equality, but to economic equality, Schwartz said. In effect, they could find their own labor opportunities, he said.
Lincoln was no angel, but certainly among the greatest of presidents, Schwartz said.
As one historian said, Lincoln saved democracy, and what more could he have done to get the nation's gratitude?
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.