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  • Doing The Gettysburg Address:Jefferson/Calhoun/Lincoln/King
  • Neil Schmitz

In the great line of federal Unionist Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is the first, Abraham Lincoln the second, Martin Luther King the third, each definitively stating the sacred phrase in our cultural narrative: all men are created equal. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," Jefferson wrote, and the first truth drives the new American narrative, turns the Declaration on, as it were, kills the King, subsequent rights following its statement, true to its logic. I will read Lincoln's revision of Jefferson's phrase in The Gettysburg Address (1863), then King's restoration of Jefferson's original phrase in the "I Have A Dream" speech, which might also be called, more fittingly, The Lincoln Memorial Address (1963). I will come finally to the issue of King's singing of the anthem, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," the difficult anthem, so expressive of New England's domination of our cultural narrative, King giving us, in his singing, an ampler version, a better version, one that adds to New England's "rocks and rills," not without a note of humor, the "curvaceous slopes of California." What King achieves in his closing rhapsody, a fusion of anthem and spiritual, creates a dynamic Unionist sublime that supplants Lincoln's subsumptive nationalist sublime.

"all men are created equal" could not drive the South's slaveholding cultural narrative. Jefferson's celebrated first self-evident truth, John C. Calhoun argued, was actually just a "proposition" based on a "hypothetical truism," lifted, as it were, from John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690). Calhoun derides Jefferson's "self-evident truth" with his belittling substitutions, "proposition," "hypothetical truism."1 In the great line of Confederate Unionist fathers, Calhoun [End Page 145] is the second, Jefferson the first, lord of the plantation, of his slaves, defender of the sovereign power of the states.

At Gettysburg, in his "Concluding Remarks," in his first move, Lincoln promptly erases Jefferson's "self-evident truth" and puts "proposition" in its place, doubly citing Jefferson and Calhoun, agreeing with Calhoun, disagreeing with Calhoun, using "proposition" in a better meaning and value, still censuring Jefferson, as Calhoun did, for the hypocrisy that always invalidated Jefferson's supreme statement, that first "self-evident truth." It is a momentous correction, the import of which ironizes all the Founding Fathers, not just the writer of the alpha phrase. "conceived in Liberty" is also bracketed, still, in 1863, a racial privilege, not a human right. To be in the new nation, you had to be conceived in liberty. There are also those "conceived in Slavery," that nation, not mentioned here, but implicit. As Lincoln restates the sacred phrase, "all men are created equal," erasing "self-evident truth," he removes Jeffersonian hypocrisy, acknowledges Confederate contradiction, strongly tells the truth about the status of the phrase in American history, that it is still a contested theory, not an accepted practice. Indeed, as Lincoln has it, carefully contriving, "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal"2 is effectively the alibi of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson's especially, their futurist equivocation, their gradualist loophole.

"self-evident truth" is gone at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863. There were some 4000 Confederate dead at Gettysburg. The statement was not presently self evident, was strongly denied, could only have propositional status, yet it had to stand, had to generate, as an enabling universal, finally put all in Liberty. Lincoln's subtle yet profound change of the descriptive speaks only to Anglo America, the new nation "conceived in Liberty," to its situation, its project. From David Walker in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) to King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson's truth is never a proposition, something decided by the nation "conceived in Liberty."

What is the actual date of the Federal Union's coming into existence? Which is the founding text? Lincoln resets the nation's clock, changes its birth certificate. He inserts "nation" into the Declaration. In its text, the Declaration speaks only for "the good people of these colonies," does not declare the independence of a new nation, declares the independence of...


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