As faithful readers of this blog know, there are few bigger fans of Mr. Lincoln than me, and I completely concur with Sir Winston Churchill that the Gettysburg Address is “The ultimate expression of the majesty of Shakespeare’s language.”
That having been said I found profoundly silly a retraction which appears in the Patriot News newspaper:
We write today in reconsideration of “The Gettysburg Address,” delivered by then-President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the greatest conflict seen on American soil. Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words “silly remarks,” deserving “a veil of oblivion,” apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.
The retraction goes on to state:
In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.
Go here to read the rest. This rubs me the wrong way. Apologizing for the actions of men long dead always strikes me as asinine. The men who penned the original editorial cannot defend their opinion now. If they could, they probably would note that they reflected a large body of Northern opinion that viewed the War as a tragic mistake, brought on by abolitionist fanaticism, which caused over a million homes in the North to be draped in mourning. I view such arguments as being completely erroneous, but I leave to those who made such arguments the dignity to which they are entitled of being participants in the maelstrom of devastating events who were honestly stating their views. To have successors a century and a half later glibly denouncing their views, even attributing such views to strong drink, insults them and insults the historical record. It is part and parcel of a historical myopia which views the present as perfect and entitled to denounce the benighted individuals who had the misfortune to live before our enlightened times. The simple truth is that we, just as much as those in the past we denounce, are in many ways prisoners of our times, often taking our attitudes and beliefs from those that enjoy popularity in our day. I have absolutely no doubt that the successors of the papers which praised the Gettysburg Address one hundred and fifty years ago, might well be denouncing it today, if the War, and all our subsequent history, had turned out differently. If one wishes to truly understand history, and the passions of the men and women who lived through it, one must be willing to understand what motivated them, why they did what they did. This foolish retraction teaches us nothing about history, but quite a bit about how the Present usually is a bad judge of the Past, at least if we wish to understand the Past. Here is a portion of the original editorial:
To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.
We can readily conceive that the thousands who went there went as mourners, to view the burial place of their dead, to consecrate, so far as human agency could, the ground in which the slain heroes of the nation, standing in relationship to them of fathers, husbands, brothers, or connected by even remoter ties of marriage or consanguinity, were to be interred. To them the occasion was solemn; with them the motive was honest, earnest and honorable. But how was it with the chief actors in the pageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whose loins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?
Go here to read the rest.