[MUSIC PLAYING] MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Good afternoon. I'm Michele Moody Adams, a professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences here at Cornell and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. And I'm pleased to welcome all of you today to this afternoon's discussion of Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg-- The Words That Remade America. My welcome goes out, most obviously, to our incoming students. You're embarking on an extraordinary journey. And all of us here find it a pleasure to be with you at the start.
I also welcome our small group facilitators, primarily members of our faculty and staff and administrators who will be joining incoming students to talk about the book tomorrow afternoon. Welcome also to all of those of you who make the logistical part of the book project work. Without your dedication, none of this would be possible. And we've got 3,700 or so new students, and we're just delighted to be able to welcome them here so well and so comfortably.
Some of you are joining us via the worldwide web, and we're pleased to share this afternoon with you. Welcome also to those of you watching us on cable access television. We extend a special thanks to Time Warner Cable for continued support of our efforts to involve the Ithaca community.
And I'm going to ask those of you who are walking in if you could do so as quietly as possible. That will enable everyone in the audience here and at home to hear as well.
So we began this new student reading project eight years ago as part of an effort to enrich new student orientation with a common intellectual experience for our students and the entire Cornell community. In that first year, August 2001, we read a provocative work of nonfiction by the biologist Jared Diamond entitled Guns, Germs, and Steel.
For the first time in eight years, we're now reading another work of nonfiction, and we're once again, ironically, thinking, at least in part, about the power of guns to remake the world. But this time, as we ponder Garry Wills's exploration of the origin and power of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, we're exploring the possibility that words might sometimes have the power to complete the work of guns.
Now before I introduce you to our first panelist-- and I'll do that in just a moment-- let me take this moment to remind you briefly that Cornell owns one of the five handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address in existence. And that very document, written in Lincoln's own handwriting, will be on display this week in Cornell's Kroch Library. And the hours for you to go take a look at that exhibit are 9:00 to 5:00 PM daily Monday, August 25 through Friday, August 29 in the Kroch Library.
And some of you will know that it's entitled The Bancroft Copy of The Gettysburg Address in honor of historian George Bancroft, who intended to include that copy in a fundraising publication to benefit Union soldiers. So this afternoon, after a brief introduction, each of our panelists will talk for about eight to 10 minutes. And I'm going to ask you once again if you can take a moment to make sure that you're settled in comfortably so that we can all take full advantage of our panelists' remarks.
At the end of the third and final presentation, we will open up the discussion to the audience. And as you can see, we've provided microphones around the room for this purpose. And what we will ask is that anyone with a concise question or an equally concise comment line up at the microphones closest to you, and then we can call on you in order.
One last reminder, particularly to our incoming students. We're just so glad to see you here, but we want to remind you of one thing. Part of the benefit of this program is, of course, the opportunity to listen to our distinguished faculty panelists. But another part is the opportunity to listen to and learn from your fellow students. That's going to follow you as a benefit, frankly, all the way through your Cornell career.
In this instance, in order to get that benefit in full and in order to allow everyone else to get it, please wait until the entire program has ended before you depart. As you can tell, the noise of people moving around in this building can be a little bit distracting.
So with that said, I'm going to introduce our first panelist, Professor Ed Baptist. Professor Baptist is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Cornell. His specialty is the history of slavery, the American South, the 19th century US. He grew up in Durham, North Carolina and received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He's currently writing a book about the expansion of slavery in the United States from 1787 to 1865. Professor Baptist will give a talk entitled "A Nation Not Like Any Other Nations". Please welcome Professor Baptist.
EDWARD BAPTIST: Thank you, and welcome to Cornell, those of you who are new here. Welcome back, those of you who, like me, are coming back for another year.
A revolution in thought. That is what Garry Wills says Abraham Lincoln completed at Gettysburg. Lincoln had already led the United States to the point where it could begin the work of emancipation. Now he completed the work of transforming America's belief about itself from acceptance of slavery to equality before the law, from original intent to breathing the animating spirit of the declaration into the letter of the Constitution.
One more thing, too. Lincoln also insisted that Americans' commitment to their nation should be different from the attachment of other citizens to their nations, and that is my subject today. Now slavery and emancipation are the story of the first half of American history, and their consequences are, in many ways, the story of everything that has happened in the United States ever since. They're what I spend my days studying and writing about.
But like the states and the federal government, something else Wills talks about, they are ultimately an American story. On the other hand, Lincoln's proposition about what kind of nation the United States should and would be not only refers to freedom from every kind of tyranny, including slavery, but is relevant in its own way to every person in the world. And this point about America among the nations feels very immediate to us at present, I think.
But here is also where Wills's argument that Lincoln speech won the day does not get us off the hook. I say that those now living in this nation aim far lower, quite often, than what Lincoln proposed.
Well, what's a nation? We think of it as the natural form of political organization, but it was not always so. Before the 19th century, many human beings, or most human beings, in fact, did not live in nations. They lived in kingdoms, empires, confederacies, religious states, independent cities, not nations. Few assumed that the inevitable end, the inevitable form of political organization, was a government that sought to represent, defend, and advance the interests of something called a people, something called a nation.
Well, that began to change by the beginning of the 19th century. States began to justify their power and their demands by the idea of nationalism. That was the idea that a common descent from the past bound all the people inside the borders of one state together in an imagined tie of brotherhood that trumped all other loyalties. As a nation, in other words, nationalists claimed that nations had ancient origins. So all Frenchmen were descendants of the Franks or the Gauls, depending on what day of the week it was. They were of one blood.
Thus governments justified their demands that the residents of distant corners of the country pay their taxes to the central government of the country, and perhaps even more painfully, go off as conscripts in the wars that that nation state decided to fight, and die together as one blood. Over the last century, nations have proved themselves remarkably efficient as political organizations, especially in their ability to muster populations for war. Nationalism we could think of as a technology, a technology of human motivation. And in that way, it's probably as important as all the other technologies that we see around us, some of them physical, some of them less so.
But nationalism depends in certain ways on stories, some of them which we might call lies, even, especially the one that says membership in a nation should trump all other human obligations to family, community, religion, and above all, the obligation to our ability as human beings to make moral and just choices without constraints by arbitrary forces, what we might call, in other words, our obligation to our own freedom and other people's freedom as well.
Lincoln, on the other hand, saw the United States as a completely different kind of nation from this. The America he described at Gettysburg had a very specific origin. 87 years ago, within the lifetime of many Americans still alive when he spoke. New, not old. People could choose to be American. They weren't American by blood. They chose. They could choose in the revolution. They could choose when they immigrated. They could choose when they left the plantation on which they had been enslaved and came to join the Union Army.
For Lincoln, all of these came down to a single type of free choice to dedicate oneself to the proposition that all people everywhere should be equally free. Well, a nation dedicated to that proposition had been preserved by the men buried in wide arcs before Lincoln as he spoke. But the legacy was not just for those who still lived and stood there listening to him. True, slavery would end and the Union would be preserved.
But America's survival was also consecrated to a much broader work than that of merely preserving one nation. Seeing that government of the people, by the people, and for the people could survive, other peoples, Lincoln hoped, would also freely choose to create nations based on propositions conceived in liberty, preserved not by sacrificing blood to the lies of rulers, but sustained by free choices. This was the unfinished work of human freedom, one beyond the poor power of any living person to carry forward themselves, bigger than Abraham Lincoln, bigger than me, bigger than you, bigger than all Americans, slave or free.
So, Wills tells us, Lincoln, by attaching the still raging war on slavery to the even more universal struggle for human social and moral freedom, so he forever changed how Americans thought about the United States. From that day, the river of history ran forward in a new channel and its course could not be turned. That's what Wills tells us.
But I'm not so sure. Rivers don't always run straight. Human beings change the course of history, not always in good ways. You can hold a river back. You can even dig a new channel, run it straight backwards through a massive American city, as long as so doing profits someone, especially if the people who will be drowned when the hurricane comes to that city are mostly descended from those who, to quote Lincoln, "with clenched teeth and steady eye fought for their own freedom long ago."
Maybe I digress a little bit, but only a little. What I mean is that ever since Lincoln spoke, and especially in more recent years, the US has often not been the kind of nation that Lincoln imagined it would become. It's come to think of itself too often as a nation dedicated to its own greatness, not as people who freely choose to assent to a great proposition.
I don't just mean how the US conducts itself as a nation among nations, whether it follows treaties, whether it bullies other nations or not. What I'm talking about here is an America that can call itself a capital H homeland, as in Homeland Security Department, an America that sings in mystical nationalism with echoes of fatherland or motherland, an America where some citizens are said by others to not be real Americans based on their origin, or not as real, an America that justifies torture and breaks down constitutional walls, supposedly to ensure national survival.
Lincoln believed that the union had to survive but it had to survive to preserve the flame of liberty. And how it survived mattered. A nation that sold its soul in order to survive would no longer be conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition. It would be a nation like 19th century nations, a nation that, instead of a new birth of freedom, had a new birth, a rebirth back into the old kind of nationalism, the mythic nationalism that he wanted to avoid, a nation that would be preserved by the lie that said that allegedly common blood trumped all other obligations.
Well, Lincoln has come, Lincoln has gone. But in some ways, Gettysburg isn't over yet. The myths that killed thousands there, and that would kill Lincoln 17 months afterwards, are still alive. So it falls to us, the living, from whatever nation, we assent to the proposition that all people are created equal, to use our power, however poor, to put the river back in its path. That is a task for my generation and for your generation and for all the generations here. Thank you.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thanks very much, Ed. Our next speaker is Hunter Rawlings, who served as president of Cornell from 1995 to 2003 and then again in 2005 to 2006. He is now President Emeritus and currently Professor of Classics and History at Cornell. He teaches courses in Greek and Latin language and literature and in anxious history, and he's recently developed a seminar on the classical influences of American Constitutional history.
His research interests focus upon Greek and Roman historians and on the making of the US Constitution. Professor Rawlings will speak to us today about "Lincoln and the Athenian Tradition of State Funeral Orations." Please welcome President Emeritus Rawlings.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Thank you very much, Michele, and welcome to all the new freshmen and transfer students at Cornell. It's wonderful to see you here.
The corpus of Abraham Lincoln's speeches stands out in American presidential history well above the corpus of any other US president. Why is that? What are the critical features of Lincoln's rhetoric that raised it so far above other presidents'? How did Lincoln come to express national values so powerfully and so memorably?
Drawing on Gary Wills' book, I posit four essential qualities of Lincoln's rhetoric. First, the optimal use of the occasion for each speech he delivered. Secondly, mastery of rhetorical traditions that were quite familiar to his audiences. Third, compression, remarkable compression of thought. And fourth, elevation of language refined to the highest level of abstraction. So let me just take those four points very briefly into consideration.
First, the occasion at Gettysburg was the dedication of a cemetery. The primary speaker was the greatest orator of the mid-19th century in America, Edward Everett. Lincoln, as president, was asked to give a brief talk to mark the occasion. He was carrying the flag, you might say. He was to deliver brief remarks. The primary speaker was someone else.
Now I know a little bit about being the warmup speaker for official occasions. I can't tell you how many times someone or some group has asked me to, quote, say a few words, unquote, blessing some event, always with a warning, please don't go over three minutes. There are other major speakers.
Well, it's hard to get up to give such a talk. Somehow Lincoln used this opportunity to write not a throwaway speech, but a statement of permanent value. Undeterred by the subordinate role he had at Gettysburg, he constructed a masterpiece. I'm in a good position to appreciate this feat. My own warmup speeches are not exactly in high demand on YouTube.
But there's a good lesson here. Each occasion, no matter how seemingly banal or brief, offers possibilities to a serious speaker. Lincoln was a serious speaker. Second, in the Gettysburg Address Lincoln borrowed from two rhetorical traditions, one of which he knew exceptionally well, the Bible. Though he was not a conventional religious thinker, and in fact, not a believer in a personal god from what we can tell, Lincoln read the Bible just about every day of his life, memorized many passages, and generally absorbed it in his rhetorical style.
The Bible was, of course, the major currency of American thought in the 19th century, the book that most civil war soldiers carried into battle, and often the only possession they died with. Lincoln could and frequently did depend on the fact that his listeners had a good ear for Biblical words, even for Biblical rhythm and tone. He did not have to quote the Bible to gain effect. He could refer to it in a few phrases and create deep impressions and subtle resonance. This is the source of much of his rhetorical power.
The other rhetorical tradition Lincoln drew upon was a pagan one, the long line of state funeral orations delivered in classical Athens, the most famous of which was that delivered by Pericles and adapted by Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War. Edward Everett, the primary speaker at Gettysburg, began his big speech by describing in detail this Athenian tradition. The purpose of those annual speeches at Athens was to honor citizens who gave their lives in battle by reburying them at state expense in a public ceremony held in the most beautiful suburb of the city.
The speakers chosen for this occasion said essentially the same things every year. They described the history of the city's battles, praised the courage of the fallen, urged the living to be prepared to make the same sacrifice in the future, and they enunciated Athenian values for the entire populace. The cumulative effect of the speech was to define and make permanent Athenian democratic identity as unique in the world.
It is therefore interesting to find Garry Wills arguing that Lincoln redefined America, restated and revised its identity in the Gettysburg Address. He did so, again, not by quoting from attic funeral orations, but by implicitly referring to them through the structure of his speech, as Wills makes clear.
Third, of all American state speeches, the Gettysburg Address is the most compact, 272 words. Lincoln's ability to compress major ideas into a few words is his most astonishing intellectual and rhetorical feat. He accomplishes this compression by completely eschewing the particular, the individual. As Wills puts it, the speech has the chaste and graven quality of an attic frieze. It is simple. It is direct. It uses small words, few words.
If only subsequent presidents, all of whom try in vain to equal Lincoln as a speaker, would use his brevity as a model. Bill Clinton, a great student of American history, simply could not figure out a way to stop talking. His speeches were endless. Just remember this when you begin writing essays for the Cornell faculty. Brevity wins.
Finally, how did Lincoln do so much with so few words? The answer is clearly abstraction. He used generalizing, idealizing language to attain a level of abstraction that is almost shocking. There's no mention of the generals at Gettysburg, of particular soldiers, not even of the two sides in the battle, the North and the South, or the Union and the Confederacy. He doesn't even use the word Gettysburg in this address. He does not say the word slavery or slave or black person, even though that is what the speech is about.
He elevates his rhetoric by speaking in abstract propositions that immediately achieve a timeless quality in American history. My advice to you on this point, abstraction, is don't try it at home. It is insanely difficult to state important ideas without using particular arguments, without citing individual facts or acts. Only a highly experienced speaker, and more importantly, a mature intellectual can do such a thing successfully.
If we have mature intellectuals in the freshman class at Cornell, I want to meet them immediately after this program. In the meantime, compression and abstraction. These are the hallmarks of Lincoln's rhetoric they are qualities to aspire to. Good luck.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Our final faculty panelist is Tad Brennan, who's a professor in Cornell's Sage School of Philosophy specializing in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Tad has a PhD in Classics from Princeton University, and he's taught at King's College London and Northwestern University and at Yale. He has published on Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and other classical philosophers, and he's interested in the influence of the classics on American political thought. His talk today is entitled "Any Nation So Conceived". Please welcome Professor Brennan.
TAD BRENNAN: Well, let me begin by thanking Michele for inviting me to participate in this discussion, and also thinking Michele and Ed and Hunter for the ongoing discussion we've had over the course of the summer, our own little mini-discussion group that I've really enjoyed. Finally, I want to thank all of you for being Cornell University's class of 2012. You have an amazing four years ahead of you. So let's get to work.
I want to talk with you about three things today. I want to say a few things about the kind of book that you've been reading and how I think you can best approach it. Then I want to say something more directly about the Gettysburg Address itself and about some claims that Lincoln makes in the course of it.
But first I want to say a few words about your intellectual orientation to the university. You've been admitted to an extraordinary intellectual community, one of the finest groups of scholars and students in the world-- with, I mean, exceptions here and there because even the best standards slip now and then. So things happen. Otherwise, though, an amazing place.
To take part in that community as a full member and to get the fullest value from your time here, you should strive to acquire the intellectual virtues that allow this tiny hillside village to be a source of new knowledge, new ideas, new techniques, and expertise for the entire world.
There are many intellectual virtues, but the ones I think are most relevant to your encounter with this book are interpretive charity and respectful skepticism. You practice interpretive charity in reading and listening to other people when you approach them with the assumption that they mean something sensible and coherent, rather than looking for ways to make them say something silly or incoherent. When in doubt, take their words in the best sense rather than the worst.
And accordingly, avoid cheap shots. Cheap shots are what you hear on radio talk shows, and they're the common currency of politics. But a university is essentially different. We are not adversaries here, but involved in a cooperative venture in which we help each other and the world at large to get a little closer to the truth.
At the same time, cooperation does not mean uncritical acceptance of what others say or the avoidance of disagreement. This is where interpretive charity hands off to respectful skepticism. Give other views the fairest shake you can. But if, at the end of the day, they seem wrong, then never hesitate to say you think they're wrong in whatever polite and supportive way will best further the cooperative enterprise.
Respectful skepticism means, among other things, never buying your opinions wholesale, never following a party line. Pick and choose should be your motto. Order a la carte. In particular, the virtue of respectful skepticism means never accepting views or opinions merely because of the stature, fame, or glamor of the person who espouses them. It means growing out of the habit of hero worship.
There are heroes in the world, men and women whose uncommon strengths and talents make up for their inevitable flaws. But none of them deserve to be worshipped, and none of them can be relied on to get it right all the time. Remember, we are all miserable sinners in the sight of the Lord. Hell, even I believe that, and I'm an atheist.
The application of these virtues to your orientation activities should be fairly obvious. Both when you're reading Lincoln's work and Gary Wills's words, and when you're listening to the words of your fellow students tomorrow, I hope you'll find opportunities to listen generously and to disagree respectfully.
Now something about Wills's book. The book we assigned to you this year is best thought of as an essay in intellectual history, history, obviously, because it's about the past, intellectual history because it takes as its object of study not a battle or a place or a person, but a set of thoughts and ideas embodied in a speech. What Wills tries to do is to give us a greater, deeper understanding of this speech so that we can appreciate the significance that it had at the time and the impact it has had since.
We can divide Wills's methods roughly into two, an extensive and an intensive. The extensive method works around the edges of the speech, extending our familiarity with the context, telling us about the world around the words, sharing with us the outlook and assumptions that its audience would have shared.
The intensive method looks directly at the speech, working to take it apart clause by clause and word by word, seeing how its parts relate to each other and how each part encapsulates some more complex whole. We could also call them the method of historicism and the method of close reading. And I want to thank Professor Darlene Evans for reminding me of that important phrase.
The two methods clearly go hand in hand when Wills compares the address, clause by clause, to the clauses of the Periclean funeral oration it so closely resembles. In your own studies of the book, I hope you'll try to practice both methods, thinking about and discussing all of the historical issues that surround the speech, but in addition, looking intently at the thing itself, reading the speech closely, trying to see how every part of the speech functions, even as a matter of mere grammar.
And by the way, thinking about the comparison to the Periclean funeral oration, were any of you surprised that we are lavishing all this time and attention on the Gettysburg Address when it turns out to be totally ripped off from someone else's work? Is this really how we're orienting you to the university life, by telling you that plagiarism pays?
Well, I want to set the record straight here. Plagiarism does not pay. I think I got that from somebody else. And if you commit plagiarism in my class or in any class here at Cornell, we will go after you. Academic integrity is one of the most important intellectual virtues in a scholarly community. It's absolutely necessary for the free discussion of ideas that each person be confident that they will get all the credit they deserve, and only the credit they deserve, for any new and original contributions they make.
So why is Lincoln exempt from the charge of plagiarism? Certainly not because he was president. No president is above the laws, no matter what they may say, and Lincoln would have been the first to agree. No, the reason that Lincoln is not guilty of plagiarism is very simple. And in fact, it's such a great trick that you really ought to know about it now.
You see, if you steal from Wikipedia or from Newsweek or from F. Scott Fitzgerald, or from Garry Wills, and don't cite your sources properly, then we call it plagiarism. But if you steal from the ancient Greeks, then we call it classical erudition. We call it culture. It's such a great scam.
But it gets better. Not only can you rip off Thucydides and Homer and Plato and Sophocles until the cows come home, it's not even your responsibility to say where you got it from. It's your audience's job to know where you got it from. Just think. Your professor suspects you of copying a sentence or an idea without citing your sources. And then you say to him, well, gee, professor, I'm sorry. I just assumed that everyone would recognize my allusion to Aristophanes' speech from Plato's Symposium. I mean, I just expected that all educated people-- oh, well, forget about it. I've got to go to practice.
It's this fabulous loophole in intellectual property law. Anything from ancient Greece is free money. But of course, if you want to take full advantage of the exemption, then you need to get familiar with the stuff that we are all expected to know. The easiest way is to take some courses in classics, but it's not the only way. Lincoln never went to college, but he had read widely in the classics and surrounded himself with the thoughts and ideas of other people steeped in the classical tradition.
Edward Everett knew more about ancient Greece than anyone else in Gettysburg that day, but most of the people in the audience had some idea of what he was talking about, and no one would have been shocked to learn that Lincoln's own speech was modeled along classical lines. Getting a rough sense of Lincoln's debt to Thucydides, as well as a sense of why no one expected him to acknowledge this, is part of how you put yourselves in a position to rip off the Greeks yourself, even if you haven't read any more of Thucydides than Garry Wills quotes.
It's also how you come closer to Lincoln's audience and their world view and gain a historical understanding of its speech and its context. It's also another way that you become part of the intellectual community here at Cornell, a community that is constituted, in part, by this sort of shared knowledge. You know some stuff and I know the same stuff, and you know that I know it, and I know that you know that I know it, our shared knowledge of the best of what's been said before and our shared search for the best new things no one has said yet.
Gary Wills's book is a wonderful exercise in intellectual history because it allows us to share in this intellectual culture of a particular historic moment. When it succeeds best, it achieves a kind of transparency. Instead of talking about Wills and his book, we can step right through it into the world he describes and argue about the war or about Lincoln or about speeches or slavery. In order to put us in a position to do that, Wills has to talk about a wide range of topics that belong to many separate disciplines here at university.
None of us here can claim deep knowledge about all the things that Garry Wills discusses. Garry Wills doesn't claim deep knowledge about all the things he discusses. That's why he has footnotes, to show where he's relying on the expertise of others. And you'll notice that when he needs a real expert on Thucydides, he cites repeatedly from the work of JS Rusten. That would be Jeffrey Rusten, our own Professor of Classics here at Cornell.
You can't expect Garry Wills to know as much about everything as some people know about some things, and you cannot expect yourselves to, either. The most you can hope for is to know a fair bit about a few things and command a wide-ranging ignorance about the rest. I'm never going to know as much about ethics and political philosophy as Michele does, or as much about classics as Hunter does, or as much about American history as Ed does.
But I can try to learn enough about what they know so that I can profit from their expertise, both by learning from them in conversation and by passing on their expertise to you, my students, with proper citation, of course, and by directing you to them when your questions quickly outstrip my ability to answer them.
In that regard, Garry Wills's book, footnotes and all, resembles a university. It's an assemblage of expertise distributed over many disciplines, the product of many specialists working in coordination. And Wills himself, in his use of his expertise, demonstrates another intellectual virtue that I want to commend to you today. He shows how to be a responsible dilettante.
Now to call someone a dilettante is generally to insult them, to say that they're shallow, pretentious, or unserious. But no one can be a serious student of more than one or two things, and our knowledge of other areas will necessarily be shallow. Being guilty of these charges is a small price to pay for a lively curiosity about things you don't know, a constant willingness to learn from others, and eagerness to offer your expertise for the use of others outside of your area of expertise. A willingness to play around outside of your own discipline is sometimes how new disciplines get created.
No, the only thing that should sting in the charge of being a dilettante is the accusation of pretentiousness, and that's where the responsibility comes in. Then the responsible dilettante always footnotes their work. And that's why Gary Wills' book is a good model for it.
Now I want to say a few words about the Gettysburg Address itself, and about Lincoln's attitude towards slavery. Wills, on page 125, raises the charge that Lincoln did not have any proper arguments for the importance of preserving the Union, only a kind of mystical attachment to it. He then sets out to rebut that charge, and I think he makes some headway. But I think more needs to be said and more can be said.
More needs to be said because the value of the Union must compensate for the costs incurred in its preservation. 600,000 dead, as Hunter mentioned the other day. Millions more lives shortened and shattered. Hundreds of cities and thousands of homes left in ruins. More needs to be said, furthermore, because the value of the Union, to Lincoln's mind, was greater than the value of the immediate freedom for the millions of people living in slavery in the South.
Lincoln is emphatic and unambiguous about this point in his letter to Horace Greeley, quoted on page 167 of your book. He wrote, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery." How could someone who put a proper weight on the evil of slavery ever think that it was less important than the abstract and merely political question of Union?
If slavery is not destroyed, then to whom does it matter whether the Union is preserved? Could Lincoln really expect me to care whether my master swears allegiance to the United States or to the Confederate States, so long as I remain a slave?
So long as the value of the union remains unexplained, then, Lincoln must be charged with a gross moral failing, a failure to place evils in their proper perspective, to see which matters more and which less. Furthermore, there's evidence that Lincoln did suffer from a gross moral failure that you might think helped to blind him to the evils of slavery. Namely, Lincoln was a racist.
There is evidence from many of his writings, from a variety of periods, that Lincoln believed that blacks are quote, morally and intellectually inferior to whites, and furthermore, I think, evidence that he shared the widespread opposition in both South and North, to the idea of the races living together and freely forming all the normal bonds of friendship, family, and marriage.
Wills tries to minimize Lincoln's racism or explain away his racist jokes as politically motivated. But I would say to Lincoln about racism what he said to Douglass about slavery. "You never treated as wrong. What other thing that you consider as a wrong do you deal with as you deal with that?"
It's no defense of Lincoln against the charge of racism to claim that he secretly, in his heart, believed it was wrong. If he felt racism was wrong, he should have treated it as a wrong. But the evidence of this secret heart is, in any case, simply not there. Give him the fairest shake you can, read as widely in his works as you like, and he still seems, even in the last months of his life, to have thought that the races differed intellectually.
Could this, then, explain his view that the Union was more important than the immediate end of slavery? No, it cannot, for Lincoln's views on slavery are even more clear and unambiguous, even better documented, from every decade of his life, than his views on race are. There was never a period in Lincoln's life when he did not oppose slavery and declare it unjust.
In 1837, the Illinois state legislature passed a resolution defending what it called the sacred right of property in slaves, the sacred right of property and slaves in Illinois, just to give you a sense of what was going on in the North then. Lincoln, a 28-year-old first term state rep, voted against it and registered a formal protest declaring that slavery is an evil and founded upon injustice. That was 26 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
When Lincoln was first elected to the Federal Congress in 1848, one of his first acts was to introduce a bill to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia, which was the only property directly under the control of Congress. That's, again, 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. At every turn in his writings, private and public, he speaks of slavery as a wrong, and in all of his public acts, he treats slavery as a wrong.
But how could his hatred of slavery be sincere if his racism is also sincere? I think the answer is that the two issues really are separate. Lincoln saw that there really are no good arguments, from claims of racial inferiority to justifications for slavery. In a fragment of his private writings, perhaps a draft of a speech, that's dated 1854, Lincoln imagines arguing with a defender of slavery and points out that every argument that the slave holder uses can be used against him in turn.
Does he claim that he's justified because the slaves have darker skin than his? Well, if that's his argument, then he is the rightful slave of the next person to come by with skin a shade lighter. Or does he say that he's justified because the slaves are less intelligent? Then he must be a slave to the next smarter person who comes by. Or does he finally admit that he has no good reasons, and that it is merely a matter of his own self-interest to own slaves? Fair enough, says Lincoln. It's in the self-interest of his slaves that they should own him.
Now there are two important things to notice here. First, that Lincoln is denying that moral and intellectual superiority or inferiority can provide any justification for slavery. Whatever you believe on that score, it cannot justify slavery. That's why it's perfectly possible to sincerely have racist views about white superiority while sincerely holding slavery to be fundamentally unjust.
The second thing to notice is the profound significance of Lincoln's turnabout argument, the kind of argument he used when he said, in even shorter terms, that "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." The very idea of imagining the roles reversed requires us to see that master and slave are fundamentally the same kind of people. The white slave owner, or Lincoln himself, could equally have been the slave, and the slave could equally well have been the master. Lincoln looked at black slaves and said, that could be me.
Are you impressed? Maybe not. Maybe you shouldn't be impressed. Maybe it's actually good news that you're not impressed. When the moral saint of one century is the moral slacker of another, then we're making moral progress. That might not be such a bad thing. But the idea that black people have the same moral status as whites, and can give and demand the same kinds of moral arguments and justifications, separates Lincoln, at least from most of the racists of his day.
There was never a time in Lincoln's life when he did not feel keenly the simple question, is this fair? Is slavery a fair institution, fair to blacks as well as whites? And there was never a time when he did not answer, simply by putting himself imaginatively in their position, that it was deeply and fundamentally unfair.
The very idea that black people were even the sort of thing to which fairness was owed was not only revolutionary in Lincoln's day in the North and South. It was also contrary to the settled law of the United States as of the 1850 Dred Scott decision. That Supreme Court decision had declared that black people were merely property, and one cannot be unfair to a piece of property. I can use my house or my car or my pencil wisely or misuse it foolishly. I can keep it in good shape or destroy it on a whim.
But the one question we cannot ask, except metaphorically, is whether I'm being fair or unfair to my pencil. It's just not included in the moral sphere, the sphere of things that one can require me to justify my actions or use my answers to justify their own actions in return. That was how the slave-owning society, and even the Federal Supreme Court, viewed black people. It was never, at any period in his life, the way that Lincoln viewed black people.
I conclude, then, that Lincoln had truly repellent, indeed appalling, views about racial superiority, but never doubted that black people are persons in the fullest sense of the word, owed and owing the same duties of justice and fairness as anyone else, and never doubted that slavery was the deepest violation of this most central kind of fairness.
As he says, we are all equal in the sense in which the declaration declared us equal, equal in our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And slavery is a direct violation of those rights. Lincoln saw as deeply as anyone the evil of slavery and the severity and proportions of that evil, and racism did not reconcile him to it in any way.
But how, then-- to return to our earlier question-- could he have thought that the Union was more important? What could possibly be more important? The answer, I think, is in quotations from Garry Wills that he gives on page 99 and in the Gettysburg Address itself. "Slavery, as bad as it is, only one instance of a larger class of evil, the evil of tyranny." This is also something that Ed had referred to as well in his speech.
Here's Lincoln again. "No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle." Tyranny, Lincoln thought, has been the legacy of human interaction throughout history. When Lincoln looked into the past, he saw on unbroken succession of kings, dictators, autocrats, and warlords, tyrants, all of them. It's a depressing spectacle of misery and human degradation.
And in the whole course of history, there's only one exception to it, the founding of the United States of America by the Declaration of Independence. Just this once, the iron grip of tyranny had been pried free briefly, and tyranny had been overcome by its natural enemy, popular self-government among equal citizens. It was a unique event, a practically miraculous event, in his view, but a terribly fragile one.
History suggested that the outbreak of democracy would be quickly extinguished by the ordinary run of tyranny, and the entire world would become, once again and forever after, enslaved to the arbitrary and unjustified power of kings and dictators. The fate of the Union, then, in Lincoln's view, would determine the fate of democratic popular self-government on earth. We have one chance on this earth to get it right, and if we blow it, then we're all slaves again, forevermore, to the tyrannical forms of government that have historically held sway.
That's the claim that Lincoln is making when he says, in the second sentence of the address, that we are testing the proposition whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. Any nation so conceived, here and everywhere, now and for all time in the future. If the USA cannot hold itself together, then no nation can. That is why the failure of the union would mean, as the last sentence says, that popular self-government would perish from the earth.
I hope that Lincoln's estimation of the relative importance makes better sense now. It's not that he thought slavery was less wrong than we do. It is that he thought the fate of the Union was of far greater significance, global and eternal significance. The evil of slavery is no different from the evil of tyranny, and the success of popular self-government is the only hope of ending both. The success of the Union will allow for the later extermination of slavery, but the failure of the Union will plunge the entire human race back into the slavery from which it so recently emerged.
Now in making this case, I've tried to read Lincoln as generously as I can. Now let me say where I respectfully disagree with him. I not only deplore his racism, I also disagree with his estimate of the importance of the United States to the fate of the world. I'm very glad that the Union was preserved. But it simply strikes me as inaccurate to say, as he does, that our success or our failure was a test case for the success or failure of any other democratic government that ever could possibly exist, any nation so conceived.
After all, even when he wrote, the United Kingdom had many elements of popular self-government, and it would later lead the US in extending the vote to women. The US did not have a monopoly on experimentation with self-government, and others might have succeeded, even if we had failed, and may still succeed if we fail in the future. I suppose I have more faith in democracy's eventual triumph independent of this democracy's ups and downs.
Of course, my ability to feel this serene confidence may be the result of Lincoln's extreme anxiety. Had he not done all he did to preserve democracy in America, the prospects for democracy around the globe right now might look very different. That's exactly what he's arguing in the address. I weigh the historical odds differently than he did, but it's probably fortunate for all of our sakes that it was his conjectures that guided the Union's actions rather than mine.
Still, you cannot understand why he placed more importance on the Union than on the immediate end of slavery. And you cannot understand the Gettysburg Address itself until you see that it contains both of these kinds of claims, philosophical claims about the eternal value of democracy and the eternal evil of slavery and all other forms of tyranny, plus more factual claims is likely to happen, what is likely to result from concrete decisions.
I disagree with Lincoln about what was likely to result from what. But I think his sense of moral perspective was exactly right, and I agree with him about the eternal importance of combating every form of tyranny, whether race-based slavery or autocratic government that tramples on the rule of law.
There my talk ends. Welcome to Cornell University. Strive to become full members of its intellectual community.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thanks very much, Tad. And now we're going to open the discussion up to the audience. And as I said earlier, we have microphones in the aisles that will allow you to line up for any comments or questions.
I'm going to take this opportunity, as people are lining up, to let you know that Gary Wills will actually be coming to Cornell on September 17 of this fall to talk about the Lincoln Douglas debates. And it's a very timely topic, I think, given the political campaign and the debates we're all likely to experience.
So with that said, let's take our first questioner. We'll start here.
AUDIENCE: Hello. I hope I'm allowed to be a bit skeptical about this reading that we did. I'll start off. In Aristotle's defense of slavery, he proposed that there is a natural order in men. There's free men and slaves, and leaders and subjugates. And he wasn't talking about racism. He was talking about just free men and slaves and that such.
And I wanted to see if we could elevate his thought to Lincoln and the situation that Lincoln and the United States was in. Couldn't Lincoln himself have been that leader, and it's in his rational interest to have subjugates of his own? And maybe it wasn't a conscious thought of his. But my question really is, how can we really elevate him when he himself is still perpetuating a system of leader over subjugates presidency, and that sort of thing? So I just felt that it's a little-- I was a little skeptical about that point.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Anybody on the panel willing to try to answer? Thank you for your question. And I think the microphones there next to you should be live.
TAD BRENNAN: Yeah. So is the worry that Lincoln himself was, in effect, a tyrant of the sort that he was opposed to? Yeah. Well, I think his answer would have been that his actions were governed by the rule of law within a Constitution, that he was the elected leader of a democratic government, and that it's really not possible to coordinate the actions of a large, populous nation with a less active, less centralized figure than that.
You can read what he says about his being a servant of the people. And I have no reason to take it as an expression of insincerity. I just don't know if you could be any less tyrannical than he was. But I'd be interested to hear what my panel members say.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Anybody else on the panel I want to take the debate there? If not, then we'll take another question. We'll go over to the microphone at the far end.
AUDIENCE: This is in response to what Professor Brennan was saying about Lincoln's racism. As I was reading the book-- and I noticed that he gave one speech in Charleston, Illinois that was particularly singled out as being particularly racist-- then again, that was during the Lincoln Douglas debates. And although, at that time, senators weren't elected by the people. He was still making an appeal to the people. And this was in a very Southern sympathizing area, so he would obviously alter his speech to the audience in order to make appeals to voters.
Now I think this really doesn't make Lincoln very much different from modern politicians who may quote, unquote, move to the center or appeal to specific interest groups in order to get votes. Actually, I come from Springfield, Illinois, which is Lincoln's hometown, and people think of him as somewhat of a saint there. So I find it kind of humorous to think that Lincoln's using some of the same tactics that I can see in modern politicians. And what would you think of that?
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Great question. Anybody on the panel?
EDWARD BAPTIST: That's one way to explain what he's doing. And I think that makes sense as a sort of a tactical explanation of what he's doing. I don't know if that lets us off the hook that Tad has put him on, or lets him off the hook the Tad has put him on.
I'm going to say here I disagree a little bit with Tad about the clarity with which we can say that Lincoln appears to be a racist. I'm not sure that he would have said that African-Americans are morally and intellectually inferior. In fact, I would say he goes to some circumlocutions to avoid actually saying that.
But at the same time, as both of you are pointing out, and as Wills points out, he does sort of tickle the racist bone of the audience he's speaking to. And I think that we can certainly ask ourselves whether or not that is, in fact, a moral thing to do.
TAD BRENNAN: Can I say just one thing about Lincoln's racism, because I do think that it evolves over time. For instance, his attitude towards the vote for black suffrage for blacks, evolved throughout the course of the Civil War in a way that I think does him credit. And accordingly, I was really quite distressed because Lincoln is someone whom I admire immensely, to find that among his last bits of correspondence, in the month before he was assassinated, was a note to one of the people organizing the new government of the state of Louisiana advocating that the new Louisiana constitution should make provisions for suffrage for blacks.
Good news. Lincoln is advocating suffrage for blacks. Bad news, here's what he says about it. "I would encourage you to consider suffrage for blacks, especially those who fought in the service or are unusually intelligent." That really irritated me because you know what? There's never been any consideration in America that white people can only vote when they're unusually intelligent.
In fact, quite to the contrary, Lincoln, like every other president, was elected by a great many people who were unusually unintelligent, and that never prevented them from voting as long as they were white. So the fact that he had this extra proviso for black voters, that seemed to me to be evidence of a kind of undigested racism that, I don't know, maybe he would've gotten over in a year or two, maybe he would have put behind him. I'd like to think it's true. But alas, it still is there in the last months of his life.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thank you. I'll go to the questioner in the back on this sign.
AUDIENCE: Hi, I'm Drew from the College of Arts and Sciences. I guess my question was more of something that I observed while reading the book. I just want to see your reaction to it. I just noticed that when I read the book, I got the sense that the Gettysburg Address, as you stated earlier, was more of-- Lincoln's comments were just that. They were comments, not really the main feature of the event.
And so I guess I wanted to see if maybe we, in retrospect, put too much emphasis on the address itself. Maybe we look at it as kind of like a beacon, and it changed the way we interpreted the Declaration of Independence because the spirit of the time is what actually changed the Declaration of Independence, and that Lincoln's sentiments before that, and his actions before and after the address, are what really guided the nation's views more than the address itself, and that because the address embodies that, we put more emphasis on it than is deserved.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thanks for your question.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I think those are very astute comments. And I do think that there is a risk, in reading this book, that one will conclude that somehow the whole world changed the day after the Gettysburg Address was delivered. Clearly it did not. The speech did not have a dramatic, immediate effect, except in Chicago, whereas we saw the newspaper took strong issue with Mr. Lincoln's point.
So I think you're quite right. It was a long time before the address began to gather the kind of power for a large number of Americans that it has today.
On the other hand, I think Wills makes a good point when he says that this grafting of the Declaration upon the Constitution was a real achievement of this speech, not of this speech only, but this was probably the most important single instance of saying the Constitution, as it stands today, doesn't work. We need to have it infused with the spirit of the Declaration even if that's not what Mr. Jefferson had in mind when he wrote it.
So there I think Wills makes a powerful point. But I think your point is also very good. We tend to enshrine this one very short speech as somehow having changed the world. I think that's an overstatement.
AUDIENCE: Thank you very much.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: We'll move to the questioner in the black t-shirt on the right side.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. I was just wondering, as high a regard as we hold Lincoln in today, he did a lot of things that we routinely criticize today's politicians for. You know, he sort of used the Gettysburg Address to push his interpretation of the Constitution on the American people. He expanded the powers of the federal government. Just wondering what you thought the American people's reaction would be to someone like Lincoln today, and what that means about the change in popular opinion and what we expect our politicians to do.
EDWARD BAPTIST: I think what Lincoln did, considering the greatness of the crisis that the Union faced, was pretty small potatoes compared to what we've seen in the last century-- I'll put it that way-- in a series of crises that the federal government has faced.
For instance, his suspension of Habeas Corpus took place numerous times. And that's because he always declared it on a limited basis at particular places where particular things were happening. He always had it ratified or turned down by Congress immediately after he did so, after he enacted the suspension of Habeas Corpus to put down a part of the rebellion.
So as opposed to something like a general suspension of Habeas Corpus, or a general and sweeping unilateral transformation of the rights of American citizens, I think that we have to say that Lincoln did not do that, and he did particular things for particular purposes.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thank you. So now we'll move back to the front microphone here.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. I wanted to move back to the theme of instead of Lincoln making history, he was sort of just following history and the recent events of the time, like the speaker behind me said. I thought that the new birth of freedom that he talked about-- I mean, people were killed in the country for just saying that. And here was the president now saying it, and he couldn't have been elected if he had said that before.
And the one thing I wanted to see in the book that I didn't see, where I thought were two major events in American history that really changed that time period right at that particular time, was the draft riots in New York City in which a black orphanage was burnt. And the northern newspapers picked up on that, the pro-war newspapers, and they showed it. Look what our enemies are doing. They're killing black children.
And at the same time, almost at the same moment, black soldiers had picked up the rifle at Battery Wagner and charged unbelievably desperate odds and were cut down by the Confederates. And who's fighting for us, and who's killing the people that are supporting us? And I thought that was a major part of the Gettysburg Address that goes unspoken, I really think, because a lot of Northerners who were very conservative at the time came out and said, wow, slavery has to end. It's just so evil. And I thought that's sort of the unspoken part underneath Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I was just wondering if anybody else thinks that those were important events in that sense.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Well, again, I think you make a good point in citing other instances that were really critically important in driving a new and different agenda. So I think that's correct.
On the other hand, what we ought to think about, in the spirit Tad is asking us to think about this, is why is it that so many of those other things have sort of been submerged in history, and this speech has been elevated to this level? It's not to disagree with your point. It's simply to say for some reasons that it's worth thinking about, this speech has this power in this country still.
And it seems to me that's almost the question Wills asks in writing this book. Why does this speech have so much power compared to those other very important events?
EDWARD BAPTIST: I think we can also say that this wasn't the first time that an African-American orphanage had been burned in the north, the first time that African-Americans had been attacked in the north, or that African-Americans enslaved in the South had struck out against slavery. But the combination of what they're doing-- African-Americans leaving enslavement themselves and pushing the agenda, plus the war itself, plus Lincoln's leadership-- cooks up a totally different brew from what you saw in the 1830s or the 1840s when these events were happening.
And Lincoln deserves some of the credit for it. He doesn't deserve all of the credit for it, certainly. But he certainly deserves some of the credit for it.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: So we'll turn to the questioner in the gray t-shirt.
AUDIENCE: Hi there. I just had a comment. I really like the Gettysburg Address. I hadn't read it before I read this book. I like the first part. You know, it goes, "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
And I think this really makes clear what the second speaker says, that Lincoln did certainly use a lot of abstractions from reality because anyone who knows any history knows that this is a complete abstraction or lie, I think the second speaker said it. You know, it was founded on the genocide of the Indians and the colonization that continues to this day, really, formally and informally. It was founded in the slavery in the South. It was founded in the wage slavery of the North, which expanded after the Civil War.
And I think the first speaker is right in saying that America rests on these and other abstractions or lies. And it reminds you of another abstraction, or lie, of Dick Cheney's recently. He was criticizing Russia, who invaded Georgia. And he said, nations don't invade other nations in the 21st century. And you know, the abstractions are just tumbling over him as he says it.
And so it's possible that Lincoln or Cheney made these abstractions thinking that they were talking about the world that they would like to see instead of what was. It's possible that they weren't, that they were just lying. But it's not really relevant because also, as the first speaker--
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Excuse me, do you have a question?
AUDIENCE: No, I said it was a comment.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Remember, brevity wins.
AUDIENCE: I know, brevity wins. So anyways, as the first speaker said, people can change history, though, and they have, and it's their duty to do so. If anybody would like to do that, create a society built on truth and about a better one than this, I'd like to see them immediately afterwards right here.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thank you very much for your comment. Now we'll move to the questioner in the back, the back microphone there, the first person in line. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Hello, I'm Pierre from the College of Arts and Sciences. And my question was do you believe that Lincoln could have been a utilitarian who was a victim of the same extreme nationalism that you so describe in the sense of political bandwagoning, that today, in this particular election that we're facing soon, we seem to be divided on the issue of the war in Iraq or Troy, or leaving the war immediately.
And back then, I believe, the paramount issue was slavery. So do you believe that Lincoln could have been a victim of that nationalism?
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Can you clarify just a little bit for us? A victim in what way?
AUDIENCE: In the sense that he tried to defend the union at what cost whatsoever.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Any comments or response from the panel?
EDWARD BAPTIST: Lincoln might have been a utilitarian. I'll leave that to Tad because he's the philosopher. But I think that one of the things that's very interesting about Lincoln is his ability to talk about both the ideal and the very practical, and the work goes into his governance and into his political rhetoric. So he's certainly seeking a world that more closely approximates his ideal, but he's very practical about seeking that within the constraints of his time, of the politics that he finds of people's preconceptions and so on and so forth.
So I think that maybe victim is not the right word. I think he's someone who uses the tools that are available and doesn't spend a lot of time wondering why there aren't better tools.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: If you listen to Wills, then Lincoln was a transcendentalist. And it's a little difficult to be both a transcendentalist and a utilitarian. But we'll think about that.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: We'll turn to the questioner in the back with the white t-shirt on.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I'm Mallory from the Arts and Sciences. And Gary Wills seems to imply in his book that Lincoln's mention of a great task left to the American people was designed to encourage the North to successfully resolve the war in order to preserve the Union. What effect do you believe the Gettysburg Address actually had on the outcome of the Civil War?
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thank you.
TAD BRENNAN: Well, there's a general question, I take it, about the relative efficiency of words and guns. This is one of the points that Michele led off with. So if I'm asked to compare the effect of the Gettysburg Address, as opposed to the Siege of Vicksburg or the naval blockade of southern ports, it's very hard to say.
My guess is that far from competing with each other, guns and words somehow play different roles. People carry guns into battle because they believe certain things, and their beliefs are formed and affected by speeches, at least when they're good ones. So did it have an effect in strengthening the resolve of the Union members to preserve the Union?
It may have. It was only one of many speeches. Again, there is this concern that our own historical perspective may be a bit distorted by our focus on this one incident. Lincoln carried on a campaign of persuasion, democratic persuasion, all the time. This speech is only one episode in his ongoing attempt to persuade the American people that the stakes were worth it. But I think that entire campaign of persuasion certainly was essential to carrying the American people with him to the preservation of the Union
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thank you. So now I'm going to mix it up just a little bit because I see one questioner who's been standing there, I think, longer than anybody else, in the gray t-shirt on the right side.
AUDIENCE: I'm John from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. You mentioned that you deplore Lincoln's racist attitudes. But do any of you believe that Lincoln would have been able to accomplish what he did had he openly advocated complete equality for blacks, both politically and socially?
EDWARD BAPTIST: I don't. That was the United States in the 1860s. And it's different from that now. It might not be as far as we'd like it to be. And it's still an issue which is very alive and very relevant to our politics today.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Anybody else want to take a try?
TAD BRENNAN: I do think that the-- in my own process of learning about this period, because in preparing for this book project, I've read a bunch of things about the period that I've never read before. And certainly one of the greatest shocks to me has been discovering the depth and pervasiveness of racism in the north, and even on the Union side.
Lincoln went to Congress a number of times trying to get legislation passed that would have done the job that the Emancipation Proclamation eventually did. And as a matter of fact, the Northern Congress wouldn't get on board with it. They were not interested in ending slavery at that time. So it's true that he faced immense resistance, even on the side of the Unionists, to advancing the campaign against slavery.
And I think I probably agree with Ed that had he openly espoused full social equality, full citizenship on all social and cultural terms for both races, or all the races, that he could not have attained the high office that he attained to.
It would be a further step to infer from that fact that because he didn't say it out loud, he really thought it all the while anyhow. That's what I'm questioning. That's what I wish I could find evidence for but just can't.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thank you. So in view of the time, we're going to have time for just two more questions or comments. So if you could make sure to-- little brevity. Thanks.
AUDIENCE: My name is Kiki from College of Arts and Sciences. And it's my understanding from high school history class that the US basically does-- all their actions are based on the City Upon the Hill speech, way back when, in some aspect or another, and that I was wondering, perhaps Lincoln didn't have a choice then other than to be so focused on the Union so that they'd a role model to the other worlds. Or do you think that he had a better choice to make than just to focus on the preservation of the Union?
EDWARD BAPTIST: I think that one of the ways of reading the City on the Hill idea is that everybody is going to look at us and everybody's going to admire us because we're so great. And I think Lincoln's point in the Gettysburg Address, as I read it, is that we're not so great. It's not even really important whether we're great or not. What's important is that we're dedicating ourselves-- and here we're rededicating ourselves to a great proposition. And everybody anywhere, that proposition is available to them if they should choose to follow it. And they may be just as good or even better at following it than us.
Now that may be reading too much into Lincoln. But in Lincoln, it seems to me that the greatness is not coming from some essential quality of America or Americans, but rather from the commitment to something that is greater than America.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I would just add to that that it's not only a question of abstraction. It's also a question of idealizing. And Lincoln does a lot of idealizing. And in, sometimes, very brief speeches, there's an enormous quantity of idealizing. But in effect you can say that's what presidents have to do. It's a major part of a president's responsibility. And Lincoln certainly engaged in it as much as anyone else.
TAD BRENNAN: I'd just like to sump up Ed's words, because I think I really agree with him here, that in Lincoln's view, American exceptionalism does not consist in our having exceptional privileges, but in our having exceptional obligations and responsibilities. We don't get to get away with stuff other people can't get away with. It's that we've got an exceptionally hard job to do. Is that fair, Ed?
EDWARD BAPTIST: Well, we've got an exceptionally hard job to do because we have this inheritance from people who took on that particular job. But anybody anywhere can choose to follow the same path. And in fact, I would say at various points in the 20th century, various other peoples-- and the 21st century as well-- have attempted to follow that path as well.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Thank you. So we're going to take our final question. Young man in the back with the Nike shirt.
AUDIENCE: Hello. I'm [INAUDIBLE] from Arts and Science. And my question will be also somewhat related to the City of the Hills kind of situation. And I was just wondering that Lincoln, consciously or unconsciously, do you think that he actually laid the groundwork for the modern American world policeman attitude around the world?
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: You want to take that one?
EDWARD BAPTIST: I put the blame on Woodrow Wilson. Wilson has the same idealistic quality as Lincoln without two things. One is the immensely practical political gifts that Lincoln had, the ability to envision a path, which was not always a straight path, to an objective, a path that had to proceed through many different crossroads and many different choices. And that was not Wilson's strength.
The second thing is that Lincoln did not believe in forcing the division, the proposition to which he believed America was committed, on any particular people outside of America. America had already committed themselves to it. But there's nothing in the Gettysburg Address, and I would argue nothing in the rest of his political career. He opposed every war that came down the pike except for the Civil War-- that suggests an America that's going to go out and force other people to adopt the American vision.
And that is also something that I would say is different from Wilson and different from the Wilsonian strain, where America is going to be the bringer of freedom to other people whether they like it or not.
MICHELE MOODY ADAMS: Well, with that said, then, our final question for the day, I'd ask you to thank our panelists for their wonderful presentations. And we thank you for your attention. Enjoy your discussion sections tomorrow. And we hope you'll be able to join us when Garry Wills comes to campus. Thank you very much. Good afternoon.
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The 2008-09 New Student Reading Project brought new students, faculty and administrators together to discuss Garry Wills' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 book, "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America."
Panelists for the Aug. 24 discussion in Barton Hall included:
Cornell President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III, professor of classics and history, who recently developed a seminar on the classical influences on American constitutional history; Ed Baptist, associate professor of history, specializing in the history of slavery, the American South and 19th-century America; and Tad Brennan, professor of philosophy, specializing in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.