Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Gelernter on Lincoln’s Thanksgiving to God

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

Abraham Lincoln is the father of the Republican party. Mr. Gelernter offers this piece in The Weekly Standard as a reminder of Lincoln’s piety as well as a query for the Nation. As I noted here:

The American Civil War cost the lives of roughly 360,222 Americans who fought for the Union. For those lives approximately 3,950,528 people of african ancestry were liberated. I ask you, dear reader, were those lives worth it?

and now, Mr. Gelernter, you have the floor….

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Of Puritans, prayer, and the Capitol dome.
by David Gelernter
11/28/2005, Volume 011, Issue 11

FOUR THEMES FLOW TOGETHER AT one of the most remarkable points in American history–the evening when Abraham Lincoln for the last time proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving. It was April 11, 1865: two days after the Civil War ended with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox; four days before the president was murdered. Our national Thanksgiving Day is a good time to remember the president who had more to do with the institution of Thanksgiving and the actual practice of thanking God than any other, and to recall his last public speech.

On that misty April evening, the world had a rare glimpse of the symbolism of a powerful prophecy literally fulfilled, if only for a few moments. The brilliant “city on a hill” that the 17th-century Puritan settlers spoke of seemed embodied in Washington, as the capital sprang to life in a blaze of gaslight. The president spoke of the nation’s long-sought victory in terms not of triumph but of reconciliation, and of the nation’s debt to God.

Some of Lincoln’s friends and admirers, recalling that night, remembered the president as if he were Moses looking “into the Promised Land of Peace from the Pisgah summit,” as one of them, the journalist Noah Brooks, wrote. Lincoln like Moses stood at the very brink of the promised land he would never enter. (It’s hard not to see Lincoln as the greatest religious figure this country has ever produced.)

Thanksgiving itself is theme number one. In 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated the famous first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Many other days of thanksgiving were proclaimed by American colonial governments. President George Washington decreed one for the new nation in 1789, and another in 1795. Thanksgiving was celebrated intermittently after that until Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November, 1864, and this time the holiday stuck.

Lincoln’s devoutness grew throughout his life; when he spoke of God, he never spoke pro forma. In his message proclaiming that November 1864 Thanksgiving, he said that the Lord “has been pleased to animate and inspire our minds and hearts with fortitude, courage and resolution sufficient for the great trial of civil war.” And he prayed for the “blessings of Peace, Union and Harmony throughout the land, which it has pleased him to assign as a dwelling-place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.” The Biblical language is typical of Lincoln. Like many Puritan-minded Americans, he thought of his country as a new promised land.

Thanksgiving has been celebrated annually ever since. But the day of thanksgiving Lincoln proposed in his last public speech that final April of his life was a bonus, over and above the annual observance.

* * *

My second theme is the Capitol dome. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the enormous iron dome we know today was only partly built. Work stopped when the war started. Contemporary photos show a mammoth two-layer wedding cake without the dome that was meant to sit on top, or the cylindrical lantern with the enormous statue of Freedom at the very top.

The English are fascinated by the Houses of Parliament, a great building and brilliant artistic achievement built largely during the 19th century. Americans pay remarkably little attention to the Capitol, a great building and brilliant artistic achievement built largely during the 19th century. Before the great dome and other massive extensions were added, the Capitol Building was decorous and pleasant–vaguely suggesting a Victorian zoo house. Ambitious changes transformed it into one of the world’s most majestic structures. No other building has its sheer, commanding presence–without a trace of the pompous, the overbearing, or the domineering.

The new dome was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter; construction began in 1859. When the war started, the construction company paused–and waited–and pondered–and finally continued. The dome was finished at last in 1863; the great statue was placed on top at the end of the year. Many Americans saw the finished dome as a symbol of the North’s resolve to win the Civil War.

* * *

On that April night in 1865, Washington was in a mood to celebrate, and the president was expected to speak. “An immense throng of people,” writes Noah Brooks, “with bands, banners, and loud huzzahs, poured into the semicircular avenue in front of the Executive Mansion.” The president appeared at a second-story window. He prepared to speak. “Cheers upon cheers, wave after wave of applause, rolled up,” Brooks writes, “the President patiently standing until it was all over.”

Now the third theme enters. Washington was lit up that night. But to understand those lights in the context of American history, we must go back to the ship Arabella, flagship of a small fleet carrying John Winthrop and a group of Puritans from England to Massachusetts in 1630. Before disembarking, Winthrop contemplated the future of their settlement in America. He wrote (with the famous Biblical passage in Matthew 5:14 in mind–“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid”), “Wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us.” Over the centuries many Americans recalled Winthrop’s words. Ronald Reagan was one; he spoke of America as a “shining city on a hill,” and used the image to help explain why America must be a beckoning light of freedom, and win the Cold War.

On the night of Lincoln’s last speech, the magnificent new dome atop the Capitol atop Capitol Hill was all lit up, and the Capitol building must have seemed (at that promising time of gratitude and peace) like a shining city on a hill. “The night was misty,” Brooks writes, “and the exhibition was a splendid one. The reflection of the illuminated dome of the Capitol on the moist air above was remarked as being especially fine; it was seen many miles away. Arlington House, across the river, the old home of Lee, was brilliantly lighted, and rockets and colored lights blazed on the lawn.”

* * *

And finally there was Lincoln’s speech, my fourth theme.

Most of it dealt with the fine print of postwar reconstruction–whether Louisiana, having repented, and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, should be allowed back into the Union immediately. Naturally Lincoln said yes. He also said that “in the midst of this”–the city’s and the Union’s rejoicing–“He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated.”

And that ended Lincoln’s career–as a great American, savior of the Union, liberator of the slaves. Our greatest president, who spoke repeatedly of the nation’s duty to thank God.

* * *

The Union was in a good mood that night and deserved to be; it had fought a terrifically hard war to the finish. Lincoln hated slavery, but led the Northern states into the Civil War strictly to preserve the Union. Public opinion wouldn’t have supported a war to end slavery. But as the fighting continued and the casualties mounted, public thinking shifted. In September 1862, Lincoln changed the whole character of the war by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in rebellious parts of the nation. He understood the Proclamation merely as a first step; he intended for all slaves to be freed by constitutional means (which the Thirteenth Amendment accomplished).

We are fighting a different war today. Like the Civil War, it began for reasons of self-interest and self-defense–fair grounds for war. Today we see a larger goal: to liberate Iraq; to fight tyranny and spread democracy. The casualties of Iraq are minute relative to those of the Civil War, though the grief caused by each is just as great; and the Iraq war is proving (like the Civil War) to be longer and harder than we ever imagined. Do we have the resolve and steady purpose and high ideals and guts we had then?

tracking Michelle Malkin

“This Nation, Under God,…”

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

Whoda thunk the LA Times would allow such an article as this to be printed in their OP/ED pages!

I present them here for safe keeping without comment…because no comment is necessary.

Lincoln’s words, our pledge
DAVID GELERNTER

November 18, 2005

THE PLEDGE OF Allegiance has been in legal jeopardy for years, all because it contains the words “under God” — a phrase Abraham Lincoln stamped on the American consciousness when he used it on Nov. 19, 1863, 142 years ago, in the Gettysburg Address.

The pledge originated in 1892, was modified in 1923 and again in 1924, and most recently in 1954 when the words “under God” were added. In 2004, and again in 2005, a California atheist named Michael Newdow filed lawsuits claiming that it was unconstitutional for children to be asked to say the pledge in public schools. In September, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled for Newdow. Inviting students to say the pledge violates their right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God,” he wrote. Presumably the pledge — or at least the words “under God” — will wind up being vetted by the Supreme Court.

One of the tragedies in all of this is the attempt to remove history’s footprint from the pledge. The pledge asks children to state their allegiance to ” … one nation, under God … ” Lincoln spoke the words “this nation, under God” at the spiritual center point of American history. Today they remind us (or ought to) of how hard this nation has struggled and how dearly it has paid to move closer to its own sublime declaration that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln hated slavery. But he led the Northern states into the Civil War for only one stated, official reason: to hold the Union together by preventing the Confederate states from seceding. At the start of the fighting, public opinion would not have supported a war to end slavery. But as casualties mounted, the public’s ideas shifted, and Lincoln felt them shifting. (As soldiers die in war, Americans raise their sights — as they have in Iraq. If Americans are to die, they must die for the greatest, noblest cause the public and its leaders can imagine.)

In September 1862, Lincoln dramatically changed the war’s character by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. As of Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious regions of the country “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln saw the proclamation as a first step. Eventually all slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment in 1865.

The Emancipation Proclamation “lifted the Civil War to the dignity of a crusade,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenburg in their classic history, “Growth of the American Republic.” But crusades can succeed or fail. When the proclamation was issued, no one knew whether the North could beat the South and enforce the president’s dramatic edict.

The question was answered on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of July 1863, in the bloody battle of Gettysburg. On the Union side alone, roughly 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. There was far more fighting ahead, but after Gettysburg there was virtually no doubt that the Union would win — and at last be in a position to free the slaves and start on the long, hard road to justice and reunification.

By delivering the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln built a sacred shrine out of words on the most important battlefield in American history — a small shrine, of wonderful beauty, that reminds us why an earlier generation of Northerners fought, bled and died to win the Civil War: So that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln added the words “under God” at the last minute. They don’t appear in drafts of the speech prepared beforehand. But he included them in copies he made afterward, and historians believe he said them in the speech. Lincoln had grown steadily more religious as he grew older. As his political and spiritual genius flowered, he re-conceived America as a nation where high ideals were not just words on parchment, they were marching orders, principles to fight and die for.

“It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence,” he said, “and if I can learn what it is, I will do it.” He wished to be a “humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people.” He knew well that Americans are far from perfect. But he believed in their duty to make themselves better.

When we invite our children to say the pledge, including “one nation, under God,” we are asking them to repeat Lincoln’s phrase, and perhaps even to feel his presence. Children who were reared as atheists, whose parents are wiser than Lincoln on the subject of God, are free to keep quiet.

And even if children should feel coerced by peer pressure (as the lawsuits have argued) to say that terrible G-word, they won’t be magically converted into Christians or Jews or God-believers of any stripe. In fact, children who don’t believe in God might still like to be reminded how Lincoln saw this nation, might like to test drive the worldview of the man who saved the Union and set it on the path to justice.

If that’s unconstitutional, we have made a serious mistake somewhere along the line. If we have any guts, we will go back and put it right.

Independence Day

Monday, July 4th, 2005

Colonial Flag of the US

On this day 229 years ago we, then called the Colonies, declared our independence from the tyrannical rule of the British Crown by the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress.

56 men signed the document, sealing their fate if the bid for independence failed. On this day we remember their bravery and commitment as well as the bravery and commitment of those who have defended our Nation ever since.

As I write this there are three United States SEALs still unaccounted for in the mountains of Afghanistan. The evil Taliban are claiming to hold one…of course they also claimed the killed the other three but apparently they were confused. As we enjoy our fireworks, cookouts, and families let’s remember that there are rough men out there in the world ensuring our right to enjoy them.

The men that signed the Declaraction of Independence were:

George Read
Caesar Rodney
Thomas McKean
George Clymer
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Morris
John Morton
Benjamin Rush
George Ross
James Smit
James Wilson
George Taylor
John Adam
Samuel Adams
John Hancock
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Joshiah Bartlett
Wiliam Whipple
Matthew Thornton
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Lewis Morris
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
William Floyd
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton
Richard Henry Lee
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Jefferson
George Wythe
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
William Hooper
John Penn
Joseph Hewes
Edward Rutledge
Arthur Middleton
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Abraham Clark
John Hart
Francis Hopkinson
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Samuel Huntington
Roger Sherman
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott
Charles Carroll
Samuel Chase
Thomas Stone
William Paca

Read about the day and what happened to these men here.

Shelby Foote, Dead at 81

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

This was a bad day for history geeks like myself. There were two people who opened my eyes to the American Civil War. The first was Ken Burns and his incredible documentary. Mr. Foote was featured throughout the piece doing commentary as well as reading the many quotes. I was intrigued by Mr. Foote’s ability to tell of the events in such a way as if he had lived them. When I purchased Foote’s 3 Volume Civil War work he quickly became the single most important person in my REAL Civil War education. What I saw in the Burns work was amplified 10 fold in Foote’s Civil War work. I had grown used to reading scholarly Civil War treatments and found them dry and difficult to wade through. Shelby Foote’s work read like a story that was impossible to put down. I remember ripping through the first book in a day and half.

I am a reenactor and know many more reenactors who became one after reading Foote’s work. If Shelby Foote has a legacy beyond his children and grandchildren, it has to be the dedicated living historians who use his work as an example of what Civil War research and scholarship is all about.

A loss felt by all who study the American Civil War. Rest in Peace Shelby Foote.