Seventy-five years earlier, Lincoln delivered a speech that the historian David Donald said was designed to “remind his listeners -- and, beyond them, the thousands who would read his words -- that theirs was a nation pledged not merely to constitutional liberty but to human equality.”
These two countries’ diverse heritages were stitched together: Lincoln’s a patchwork of immigrants and sectional rivalries that survived only seven decades before being rent by civil war, Hitler’s a hand-woven quilt of principalities, states and pocket kingdoms ruled separately not even a century earlier. And both men spoke mystically about the power and character of their people, Hitler invoking the “volk” and Lincoln employing the word “nation” five times in his short address.
The difference, however, is that Lincoln’s speech laid the groundwork for what was arguably a new nation, one that reaffirmed the principle that all men were created equal, though that promise even now has not been fully realized.
Miami University historian Martin P. Johnson argues in his “Writing the Gettysburg Address,” published earlier this year, that it was “when standing before the living and the dead that Abraham Lincoln, in the inspiration of that Gettysburg moment, created the words and image of an enduring and authentic myth that across the generations has been vital for elevating our vision and clarifying our purposes.”
But what Lincoln did was more than simply clarify our purposes by transforming the Civil War from a struggle over the fate of the Union into a struggle to end slavery. He brought moral clarity to the war, and to the country that would emerge from it.
The only false note in the brief speech that transformed the war and the country was Lincoln’s mysterious self-effacing aside that the world would little note nor long remember what he said there, at Gettysburg. That was a digression, but the remainder of the speech was anything but. It was a clear statement of American values -- a mission statement for a missionary nation.