“Four score and seven years ago.” This is one of the most recognizable opening phrases of all time. It is also one of the least understood.
Even by the linguistic standards of nineteenth-century America, Lincoln’s start to the Gettysburg Address is archaic and cumbersome. This is remarkable, given that more than a few consider the speech the finest expression of modern English ever penned. To avoid the confusing use of “score,” Lincoln might have said, “eighty-seven years ago.” To be even more concise, he might have said, “In 1776.”
Taking his audience to 1776 is absolutely critical to his aim. Some in Lincoln’s day argued that the nation began in 1788 with the ratification of the Constitution, an agreement they believed the states could opt out of as they wished. But, for Lincoln, the nation was “brought forth” in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. As important as the Constitution is in defining America, it remains subordinate to—because it was but a practical expression of—a prior, deeper, and controlling ideal: the belief that “all men are created equal,” which is the central and self-evident truth of the Declaration.
The truth that all people are equal in their right to rule themselves gave birth to America as a country of freedom, one worthy of a binding allegiance. It was only by rededicating themselves to this ideal—by rising up to defend the country so conceived—that Lincoln’s audience could truly honor the noble dead at Gettysburg, whose ultimate sacrifice had already hallowed the ground beneath their feet.
Why not just open with “In 1776”? As with much of the address, Lincoln layers his introduction with multiple meanings. “Four score and seven years ago” is a phrase based upon a patently biblical system of counting. With these six simple words, Lincoln simultaneously points his audience to the Declaration and to God. In doing so, Lincoln signals that America is, at once, grounded in a revolutionary truth about inherent human freedom and a more storied conviction of divine superintendence. This implicit message becomes explicit in the memorable last line of the address, in which he concludes that the country operates of, by, and for the people, even as it stands as a “nation, under God.”
Although such a distinctly religious view was widely accepted at the time, Lincoln only developed it late in life. In fact, the phrase “under God” did not appear in the original text of his speech; he simply inserted it on the spot as he spoke. Yet Lincoln ensured that the phrase was kept in every subsequent copy of his remarks. And, if this note of a nation under God plays somewhat softly at Gettysburg, it builds in his personal and presidential rhetoric, hitting a near-deafening crescendo in his Second Inaugural Address—the stirring companion piece to the Gettysburg Address and a speech of no less literary grace.
In Lincoln’s mind, the view of America “under God” hardly translated into a sweeping set of easily identifiable and zealously enforced public policies. His Second Inaugural makes it abundantly clear that “the Almighty has his own purposes” that may or may not comport with the popular religious assumptions of even the most churched of peoples. Yet, as he explained privately of that speech, the idea that “there is a God governing the world” with purposes discernible enough and connected to broad, non-sectarian contours of justice, humility, and charity was a “truth [he] thought needed to be told.”
Lincoln’s mature political thought as expressed at Gettysburg and beyond thus rests on two strong truth claims about humanity. The first is that humans are free to determine the direction of their lives before one another, because they are natural equals with one another. The second is that there is a God—specifically the God of the Bible—who directs the affairs of men and who commands love for himself and for other human beings.
Where some will insist that such a political philosophy is an illogical mix of contradictory notions, others will recognize in it the manifestation of a gifted intellectual and moral iridescence, a Tocquevillian knack, if you will, for uniting the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty in such a way that each robustly supports, rather than destroys, the other. In our most fitting efforts to recognize the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, we would do well to reflect on the current status and trajectory of these two intertwined truths, which Lincoln considered vital for America on November 19, 1863. A consideration of one phrase of somewhat contested meaning in the speech may help us do just that.
Lincoln’s opening at Gettysburg explained that America was dedicated to the “proposition” that all men are created equal. Noting that a proposition is something more provisional than a proven fact, or “truth,” some contemporary scholars have seized on this to suggest that Lincoln himself was intellectually queasy about any full-bodied assertion that moral truths exist. But this says more about the postmodern academy than it does about Lincoln. He said too many times, in too many places, that he was convinced that “all men are created equal,” and that this was a notion that held true across time, space, and skin color.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln is not suggesting that the principle of equality is merely propositional but rather that America’s dedication to it is propositional. The Civil War was, to use his term from the very next sentence, “testing” whether America’s dedication to such a truth would or would not last. The question was very real, with a substantial part of the country in open revolt, driven largely by a sentiment expressed by Confederate leader Alexander Stephens in his now infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he declared that government should be founded on the “opposite idea of equality” and the “great moral truth” that black Americans were “no equal to the white man.”
With deep thanks to Lincoln as much as anyone else, any question about America’s current commitment to the doctrine of the Declaration is now erased. Though we may not always fully live up to the demands of that doctrine, virtually no serious and respectable figure today would argue for the existence of inherent inequalities that would, prima facie, entitle one person or group to rule over another. That argument is finished. The proposition that we, as a country, are dedicated to the truth that all are created equal is proven.
But what of the notion that American is a “nation under God”?
To be sure, the country still leads the world in a commitment to the free exercise of religion. And plenty of citizens continue to take cues publicly from their understanding of transcendent imperatives illuminated by revelatory traditions. It may even be the case that people of faith are uniting and speaking more, not less, as people of faith in common civic cause. Yet, as court cases, legislation, executive orders, and the informal rules of polite society unfold these days concerning public prayer, religious clothing and iconography, hate speech, marriage, sex, adoption, and more, evidence is also growing that the costs and restrictions for such citizens to do so are on the rise in various quarters. If we accept Lincoln’s little speech at Gettysburg in its entirety, all of this suggests that a transformation has taken place in American politics, which is both welcome and alarming.
In Lincoln’s day, while America’s dedication to human equality could be seen as propositional, its embrace of God’s providential role in the world was a given. Now it seems that the reverse is true. Today, the notion of human equality is thankfully recognized as an uncontested and foundational fact of the republic, whereas the sense that we are a nation with a right, if not a duty, to recognize the existence and direction of a Creator is in a growing state of disputation.
With the old proposition of equality proven, a new one has arisen. This leads to a very real question. Can America’s understanding of itself as a nation dedicated to the proposition that God is our Creator, and that we are subject to His will, long endure?
Contrary to his own ironic prediction, we do note and long remember what Lincoln said a hundred and fifty years ago. As we do so today, a genuine grasp of the whole wisdom of the Gettysburg Address should brace us for any coming test as a nation of faith, even as it leads us to a just celebration of the enormous progress we have made in extending liberty to all.
Matthew S. Holland is President of Utah Valley University and the author of Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Deseret News.