Lincoln’s Gettysburg Lessons for Modern Canadians

David W. Livingstone
November 19, 2013
Pericles, Lincoln, D’Arcy McGee, and the perils of unprincipled rhetoric

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Lessons for Modern Canadians

David W. Livingstone
November 19, 2013
Pericles, Lincoln, D’Arcy McGee, and the perils of unprincipled rhetoric
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Several months prior to his famous speech at Gettysburg, delivered 150 years ago on Thursday, November 19th, Abraham Lincoln issued his “Emancipation Proclamation” declaring that slaves in any of the recaptured areas of the South would be freed. Had anyone doubted whether Lincoln believed the Civil War was ultimately over the issue of human slavery, those doubts were now insupportable. For Lincoln, preserving the Union meant ending slavery in America. Lincoln used his rhetorical skills at Gettysburg to remind his fellow Americans in the Union of their noble purpose. His speech ought to remind us that rhetoric is a necessary tool in politics, but that it requires an audience who can tell the difference between noble and ignoble political goals.

The speech Lincoln delivers on the Gettysburg battlefield is brief, yet it is both eloquent and profound. Lincoln wrote it with Pericles’ Funeral Oration in mind. Both are speeches by leaders of democracies at war. Both employ rhetoric to honour the dead and to inspire the living. Yet the differences are significant: the one evoked imperialism, the other individual liberty.

Pericles celebrates the power of the Athenians and the extent of their growing empire. He praises the current generation more than the previous ones; the forefathers merely maintained the Athenian empire, while the current generation extended it. He hopes to inspire the Athenians to dedicate themselves to the empire and to subjugate more people.

Lincoln, by contrast, hopes to return a fractured nation to wholeness. He praises the fallen soldiers who died to preserve what their forefathers had wrought, “a nation conceived in liberty.” He hoped to rededicate Americans to the principles of the Declaration and to inspire them to free people from slavery.

Both democratic leaders employ rhetoric because democracy requires persuasion. Today we might be tempted to conclude that only spin-doctors and politicians who wish to deceive resort to rhetoric. But our cynical perspective might miss something that Lincoln knew. Employing rhetoric to persuade reflects less the speaker’s motivations than the audience’s expectations and limitations. For one thing, the occasion does not call for, nor would an audience patiently sit through, a dry philosophical treatise.

In addition, Lincoln’s speech must speak to and soothe the human spirit while inspiring with the right convictions those who must continue the fight. A democratic leader must employ the “music” and “poetry” of rhetoric in order to inspire both moderation and courage. Yet, as Aristotle informs us, true courage is not facing ones fears in the pursuit of just any goal. Courage means facing fear in order to achieve the right goal, a noble goal.

It is the student of politics’ job to judge whether the purpose for which Pericles roused the Athenians, or the one Lincoln pressed upon the Americans, represents the higher goal. For that we would need to study the past, including the great works of political philosophy that thoroughly examine human nature and the conditions required for its flourishing and happiness. To adequately appraise the goal of courageous action we would first need to believe it is possible to determine rationally and objectively which moral goals are better and worse for our community.

Unfortunately, too many Canadian schools and universities today suffer from the lingering hangover of post-modern philosophy that disparages such knowledge. Our fellow citizens are often taught that there is no truth to be had; instead, there are only moral perspectives, often culturally based, each one equally valuable (and therefore equally invaluable, there being no reasonable way to decide among them). Even the Canadian Supreme Court declares that “morals and taste” are merely “subjective, [and] arbitrary” (R. v Labaye, 2005). That being so, there would be no rational way to decide between the goals set by a Pericles or a Lincoln, and all that would remain is rhetoric without any substance: mere spin. No wonder Canadian youth brought up to believe this are so cynical and politically disengaged.

To return some of our fellow Canadians to a proper study and appreciation of genuine political philosophy would lead, I suspect, to greater respect for statesmen like Lincoln and the causes for which they fought. It would lead to conclusions similar to those reached by Justin Lyons after his careful study of another great rhetorician and democratic statesman, Winston Churchill. Lyons concludes, “the leadership of democracy carries with it both special inspirations and particular challenges. The inspirations are connected with political principle. The principles of Anglo-American constitutionalism—limited government, freedom of speech, and the division of power, for example— are all in some sense the children of a healthy respect for the dignity of humanity considered both individually and collectively. But they are just as much a recognition of the dangers inherent in basing politics on such an idea. A healthy respect must include not only an appreciation of strength and potential for good, but also an appreciation of weakness and hence potential for mischief.”

The true student of politics would, of course, acknowledge an obvious danger: poetry and rhetoric may also be used to “inspire” people to embrace wrong opinions and ignoble causes. So such students would be brought to see the necessity of bringing poetry and rhetoric under the disciple and tutelage of political philosophy, that is, to the study of human nature and virtue.

Finally, such study, inspired perhaps by Lincoln’s example, would suggest that the health of Canadian democracy is enhanced by ensuring we have citizens who have not been tempted by modern educational trends to forsake and forget the deep lessons we can learn by meditating on the great authors and statesmen in our tradition.

Lest we think that the perspective on politics I have sketched out, departing as it does from the Gettysburg address, is foreign to our Canadian context and history, let me conclude by referring to one of our own great rhetoricians and statesmen, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. In 1861 McGee grasped what Lincoln affirmed at Gettysburg three years later: “a war for the unity of the [American] Republic” McGee asserted, “must be necessarily, ipso facto, a war for liberty. The dogmas of which the Republic is founded are the genuine articles of every freeman’s creed.” And while McGee appreciated Lincoln’s example, just as we might today, he did not conclude that Canada must imitate every aspect of America’s experiment in democracy. Indeed he often wrote that Canadian liberty was in crucial respects superior to American liberty.

However, McGee insists on one point: Canadians ought to learn their history and politics, including “the genuine articles of every freeman’s creed.” Above all, McGee declares, “the object of all intellectual pursuits, worthy of the name, is the attainment of Truth.” Thus, he says, “our mental self-reliance is an essential condition of our political independence.” If Canadians are going to preserve their freedom then the young people of Canada will need “to exercise their powers of mind as well as body; to acquire the mental drill and discipline, which will enable them to bear arms of a civilized state in times of peace, with honor, and advantage.” Today we might begin by directing their attention to Lincoln’s remarkable speech at Gettysburg, eventually turning from there to the rich resources of our tradition of political thought upon which Lincoln draws.


David Livingstone, Ph.D.

Vancouver Island University

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