Obama’s Gettysburg Address

by Adam Keiper

This week, instead of attending any events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the most acclaimed piece of American political oratory, President Obama opted to mark the occasion with a written statement.

Obama, recall, once frequently invited comparisons of himself to Abraham Lincoln, launching his first presidential campaign in Springfield, twice taking the oath of office on Lincoln’s inaugural Bible, invoking Lincoln in many prominent speeches, and attending numerous events related to the 16th president in 2009, his bicentennial year. In this week’s statement about the Gettysburg Address, the president dropped subtle hints about his own Lincolnness: President Obama chose to handwrite his statement, a nod to Lincoln’s famous handwritten versions of the address (which was really drafted and edited with painstaking care, and not on the back of an envelope); one of these handwritten copies, as President Obama notes, is kept in the White House. And President Obama’s statement was composed to be almost precisely the same length as Lincoln’s address (both clocking in at just over 270 words).

But it is the political philosophy of Obama’s statement that is striking. It muddles Lincoln by making him out to be a Progressive. Check out the brief statement’s fourth and fifth paragraphs:

[Lincoln] understood as well that our humble efforts, our individual ambitions, are ultimately not what matter; rather, it is through the accumulated toil and sacrifice of ordinary men and women — those like the soldiers who consecrated that battlefield — that this country is built, and freedom preserved. This quintessentially self-made man, fierce in his belief in honest work and the striving spirit at the heart of America, believed that it falls to each generation, collectively, to share in that toil and sacrifice.

Through cold war and world war, through industrial revolutions and technological transformations, through movements for civil rights and women’s rights and workers rights and gay rights, we have. At times, social and economic change have strained our union. But Lincoln’s words give us confidence that whatever trials await us, this nation and the freedom we cherish can, and shall, prevail.

So President Obama says that Lincoln, although a “self-made man,” “understood” that the things we do as individuals “are ultimately not what matter.” Instead, only the “accumulated toil and sacrifice” of our collective action matters. President Obama says that the country is built only by what we do together (recall “You didn’t build that”). He even hints at the most infamous Progressive trope, the military analogy of thinking about collective action by citizens. This is not only a bizarre reading of the Gettysburg Address, it is a grossly anachronistic way of thinking about Lincoln, as further evidenced by the last paragraph, in which President Obama follows the Progressives in putting Lincoln’s ideas in the context of what the Left sees (not entirely wrongly) as an ongoing series of “rights” movements: “civil rights and women’s rights and workers[’] rights and gay rights.”

In short, President Obama tries to appropriate the Gettysburg Address for Progressivism. He takes Lincoln’s lifelong love of the Union and the American regime and gives it a collectivist and Progressive spin. It is wrong to say that President Obama doesn’t believe in American greatness; he just believes that the country’s greatness lies in its constant collective self-correction, its upward path toward enlightenment. The man who campaigned as though he was the new embodiment of Lincoln now seems to think that Lincoln was just an earlier incarnation of Obama.

Lincoln’s real views were much more complicated than President Obama suggests. Lincoln had a much richer, much more realistic, and much more tragic understanding of equality and liberty.

President Obama would do well to read some Rich Lowry and Harry Jaffa. And anyone interested in a short and smart philosophical analysis of the Gettysburg Address during this anniversary week should take a look at Leon Kass’s probing little essay from a few years ago; it invites us to see our country, and hear the address, through Lincoln’s eyes and ears.

—Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.