How foreigners view the President

by Russ Roberts on April 11, 2007

in History

Here is how one newspaper described a recent speech by the Republican in the White House:

"The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the
silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed
out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."

The newspaper: the Chicago Tribune.
The President: Abraham Lincoln
The utterances: the Gettysburg Address

Growing up, I always loved the grandeur of the Gettysburg Address and very much enjoyed Garry Wills’s masterful discussion of its significance. But now that I know a little bit more about the Civil War and how many people died and what they thought they were dying for, my opinion comes closer to the Trib’s. Here is the last majestic sentence of the Address:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining
before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to
that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that
we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain —
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and
that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not
perish from the earth.

A new birth of freedom? Democracy? That isn’t the cause those soldiers fought and died for. They fought to preserve the Union. Not to get rid of slavery, though mercifully, the war achieved that end. And by the election of 1864, the North was disenchanted enough to give McClellan 45% of the vote.

I spent a day at Gettysburg last week with my family. It’s a powerful, depressing, and poignant experience. In the cemetery Lincoln dedicated, many of the graves are unmarked. They are simply numbered. They are so close together that the graves must have been dug as long trenches where the dead were laid shoulder-to-shoulder.

If Lincoln had survived the attack by Booth, I wonder whether his luster today would burn so brightly.

On the flip side, had the war not happened, who knows how long slavery might have endured? Ten years? Fifty? At least some unintended consequences are beneficial.

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