Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Good Words

Noting some far more relevant words than those that have been offered in this space, Daniel Hannan offers something interesting about Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago today.

The address is considered one of the most historically significant of our nation's history -- and not just because an elected official was called on to give a speech and kept it under 300 words, although that's Guinness-worthy in and of itself. What Lincoln said in the aftermath of a bloody battle in the war that pitted American vs. American, fighting with what could be called with only a little exaggeration the soul of the nation at stake, helped outline why he believed the seceding states were wrong and why he would shed blood to recall them.

He declared that sacrifice must inspire service, or else it is in vain, and that the sacrifice of the soldiers at Gettysburg should inspire a resolution that the founding idea of the United States -- "government of the people, by the people, for the people" -- should not "perish from this earth."

Hannan notes that Lincoln's words echo phrasing by John Wycliffe, who wrote a similar phrase describing what he believed to be the centrality of the Bible for the Christian faith -- about 135 years before Martin Luther redecorated a church door in Wittenberg. In 1382, Wycliffe published a Bible in English, during a time when translations "in the vernacular" or common language of the people, were forbidden. In the prologue of his edition he gave part of his reasoning: "This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people."

Wycliffe died of a stroke in 1384, although his opponents succeeded in having him deemed a heretic in 1415 and having his body exhumed and destroyed.

Hannan thinks it might be likely that Lincoln would have known Wycliffe's phrase, given the more widespread knowledge and familiarity with religion and religious writings during his day. There's no telling for certain, I suppose, although Lincoln was widely read as a self-taught scholar and he alluded to religious writings and beliefs often enough to suggest he read widely in them as well. The 16th president's own faith was frequently tested by the trials of his office, and reading his prayers and meditations offers a good picture of what a spirit may look like as it seeks out the shepherd's rod and staff while walking through the valley of the shadow.

Whether Lincoln knew Wycliffe's words or not, Hannan is probably right that his listeners would have recognized them more readily than people reading today, since even certain religious professionals with a much wider-than-average exposure to religious writings did not catch the allusion. I might or might not see one of them in my mirror in the morning.

And that kind of prompts its own little bout of melancholy. You may have noticed several online excitables take notice of a plaque on a building at Northeastern Illinois University that refers to Lincoln as a Democrat. Lincoln, of course, was the first Republican president, but the university notes that the word "democrat" has been used in other arenas than simple party affiliation. The plaque creators, who donated it in 1905, were very likely referring to Lincoln's egalitarian philosophy, of which the "of the people" phrase is a good description. That's not the melancholy.

The melancholy comes when some folks took a video camera to the plaque and asked students if they knew whether Lincoln was a Democrat or a Republican. See how many don't know and how many guess. We're not talking about people knowing who Martin Van Buren's running mate was (he had none -- Richard Mentor Johnson was dropped from the ticket and elected by the United States Senate, and believe me, I had to look that up). We're talking about something as basic as the party affiliation of one of the greatest presidents of the United States and quite likely one of the greatest leaders of any English-speaking nation period. And we're talking about young people pursuing knowledge in a modern American university in the state that calls itself "The Land of Lincoln" not knowing that basic information.

Who the heck will they be qualified to govern?

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