In April, Prof. Vivian attended the annual Phi Alpha Theta regional student paper conference at UCLA with CSUB member Daniel Sexton, who presented his senior seminar paper at the conference. She enjoyed the short keynote address on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and filed this summary of the presentation by Dr. Waugh, an award-winning professor whose several books include The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (UNC Pr., 2004), and the forthcoming Wars Within A War: Controversy and Conflict Over the American Civil War (UNC Pr., 2009):
The American Civil War was a singularly devastating event in American history, with an average of 425 soldiers dying each day, for a total of some 625, 000 soldiers killed during the course of the war, or 2% of the population. At the center of this conflict and national tragedy was President Abraham Lincoln, about whom more books have been written than anyone other than Jesus. His legacy is being commemorated and re-examined during this bicentennial of his birth.
On November 19, 1863, Lincoln articulated the ideals of our country as he desired them for a reconstituted nation. In his Gettysburg Address on that day he expressed our national purpose, our national pride, and our national ideals.
The July battle at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania had resulted in the deaths of 50,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. It was considered a northern victory, but Lincoln wept. He was further disturbed by Gen. Lee’s escape, upset that Gen. Mead had not pursued him, which might have cut the war short and brought it to an end.
The dead on the field at Gettysburg had been poorly buried, and citizens were upset, so it was decided to create a national cemetery and have a day of dedication with a great orator—Edward Everett. Then someone decided the President should also be invited to speak.
Lincoln’s parents were illiterate, and he was mostly self-taught, having had very little formal schooling. It was his training in the law that helped him become such a great orator; he had an uncanny knack for coming up with just the right words called for by the occasion.
Lincoln saw America’s Civil War as a global conflict, which suggests that the notion of American exceptionalism was at its height. He said that America was the only beacon in the world and that if the Union lost the war, the last best hope of the world (i.e., America) would be gone.
Everett’s speech lasted two hours—and the crowd loved it. Then Lincoln read his short speech—a mere 271 words. Yet it has become one of America’s sacred texts.
In it Lincoln articulated the abstract truth of equality. There was no mention of battles or of slavery. Instead Lincoln defined the principles for which Union soldiers had died in that hope that something good might come out of this battle.
Lincoln closed his speech with these now famous words of hope: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”