The Other Gettysburg Address

Wilson Gettysburg

First, a bit of good news. Today I learned that my essay, “Black Confederates Out of the Attic and Into the Mainstream” has been accepted for publication in The Journal of the Civil War Era. I suspect I will have to wait some time before I see it in print. I argue that as historians and teachers we need to be thinking harder about how the Internet has changed not only how history is written, but more importantly, how it is being consumed and shared. From the essay:

The success of the black Confederate phenomena can be traced directly to the expansion of the Internet, including access to rich databases of primary sources and the availability of digital tools such as blogs, wikis, and other platforms that allow practically anyone the opportunity to publish a website and engage and influence a wide readership.  This has led to a sharp increase in the amount of history published online by individuals and organizations with little or no formal training in the field.  As a result, the democratization of history through online publishing continues to blur the distinction between professional and popular historians and challenges any presumption of who has the right to research and publish history. While professional historians assume the responsibility of critically assessing the work of their peers they have yet to explore their role in responding to and evaluating online content.  The black Confederate narrative provides academic and public historians with an opportunity to reflect on how they might engage history enthusiasts and the broader general public in an environment that promotes an unregulated marketplace of ideas.

Next week I am heading to Gettysburg College to take part in this year’s Civil War Institute. It’s always a blast and this year is extra special given that is the 150th anniversary of the battle. I hope to be able to soak up some of the sesquicentennial vibe without having to be there in the middle of all that craziness the following week.  This year I am going to be working with a group of high school students, who will be taking part in the conference. It’s nice to have a chance to be filmed for C-SPAN, but I much prefer a classroom setting where I can interact with students.

I am going to use the opportunity to introduce students to the subject of Civil War memory by having them compare Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 address from the 50th anniversary. The text is below, but as you read it think about how you would introduce this speech to a group of students.

  • What questions would you ask to frame the two documents?
  • What sentences, phrases, or words stand out to you and why?
  • What was Wilson’s goal in addressing his audience in 1914?
  • What events would you reference to frame the historical context of this speech?

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

Friends and Fellow Citizens:

I need not tell you what the Battle of Gettysburg meant. These gallant men in blue and gray sit all about us here. Many of them met upon this ground in grim and deadly struggle. Upon these famous fields and hillsides their comrades died about them. In their presence it were an impertinence to discourse upon how the battle went, how it ended, what it signified! But fifty years have gone by since then, and I crave the privilege of speaking to you for a few minutes of what those fifty years have meant.

What have they meant? They have meant peace and union and vigor, and the maturity and might of a great nation. How wholesome and healing the peace has been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes. How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as State after State has been added to this our great family of free men! How handsome the vigor, the maturity, the might of the great Nation we love with undivided hearts; how full of large and confident promise that a life will be wrought out that will crown its strength with gracious justice and with a happy welfare that will touch all alike with deep contentment! We are debtors to those fifty crowded years; they have made us heirs to a mighty heritage.

But do we deem the Nation complete and finished? These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that the people might live. But their task is done. Their day is turned into evening. They look to us to perfect what they established. Their work is handed on to us, to be done in another way, but not in another spirit. Our day is not over; it is upon us in full tide.

Have affairs paused? Does the Nation stand still? Is what the fifty years have wrought since those days of battle finished, rounded out, and completed? Here is a great people, great with every force that has ever beaten in the lifeblood of mankind. And it is secure. There is no one within its borders, there is no power among the nations of the earth, to make it afraid. But has it yet squared itself with its own great standards set up at its birth, when it made that first noble, naпve appeal to the moral judgment of mankind to take notice that a government had now at last been established which was to serve men, not masters? It is secure in everything except the satisfaction that its life is right, adjusted to the uttermost to the standards of righteousness and humanity. The days of sacrifice and cleansing are not closed. We have harder things to do than were done in the heroic days of war, because harder to see clearly, requiring more vision, more calm balance of judgment, a more candid searching of the very springs of right.

Look around you upon the field of Gettysburg! Picture the array, the fierce heats and agony of battle, column hurled against column, battery bellowing to battery! Valor? Yes! Greater no man shall see in war; and self-sacrifice, and loss to the uttermost; the high recklessness of exalted devotion which does not count the cost. We are made by these tragic, epic things to know what it costs to make a nation—the blood and sacrifice of multitudes of unknown men lifted to a great stature in the view of all generations by knowing no limit to their manly willingness to serve. In armies thus marshaled from the ranks of free men you will see, as it were, a nation embattled, the leaders and the led, and may know, if you will, how little except in form its action differs in days of peace from its action in days of war.

May we break camp now and be at ease? Are the forces that fight for the Nation dispersed, disbanded, gone to their homes forgetful of the common cause? Are our forces disorganized, without constituted leaders and the might of men consciously united because we contend, not with armies, but with principalities and powers and wickedness in high places? Are we content to lie still? Does our union mean sympathy, our peace contentment, our vigor right action, our maturity self-comprehension and a clear confidence in choosing what we shall do? War fitted us for action, and action never ceases.

I have been chosen the leader of the Nation. I cannot justify the choice by any qualities of my own, but so it has come about, and here I stand. Whom do I command? The ghostly hosts who fought upon these battlefields long ago and are gone? These gallant gentlemen stricken in years whose fighting days, are over, their glory won? What are the orders for them, and who rallies them? I have in my mind another host, whom these set free of civil strife in order that they might work out in days of peace and settled order the life of a great Nation. That host is the people themselves, the great and the small, without class or difference of kind or race or origin; and undivided in interest, if we have but the vision to guide and direct them and order their lives aright in what we do. Our constitutions are their articles of enlistment. The orders of the day are the laws upon our statute books. What we strive for is their freedom, their right to lift themselves from day to day and behold the things they have hoped for, and so make way for still better days for those whom they love who are to come after them. The recruits are the little children crowding in. The quartermaster’s stores are in the mines and forests and fields, in the shops and factories. Every day something must be done to push the campaign forward; and it must be done by plan and with an eye to some great destiny.

How shall we hold such thoughts in our hearts and not be moved? I would not have you live even to-day wholly in the past, but would wish to stand with you in the light that streams upon us now out of that great day gone by. Here is the nation God has builded by our hands. What shall we do with it? Who stands ready to act again and always in the spirit of this day of reunion and hope and patriotic fervor? The day of our country’s life has but broadened into morning. Do not put uniforms by. Put the harness of the present on. Lift your eyes to the great tracts of life yet to be conquered in the interest of righteous peace, of that prosperity which lies in a people’s hearts and outlasts all wars and errors of men. Come, let us be comrades and soldiers yet to serve our fellow-men in quiet counsel, where the blare of trumpets is neither heard nor heeded and where the things are done which make blessed the nations of the world in peace and righteousness and love.

15 comments… add one
  • Tom Thompson Jun 12, 2013 @ 9:41

    I think the questions for students might be to ask them to sort the distortions in the second and third paragraphs. Some student questions…Why would the POTUS speak thus? Does politically correct niceness demand overlooking the act of rebellion? Can you give modern day examples when the facts are obscured or PC manners require officially pretending that all has always been well?

    “Greater no man shall see in war; and self-sacrifice, and loss to the uttermost; the high recklessness of exalted devotion which does not count the cost.” Ask students if they think mothers, widows and orphans would be able to enlighten Wilson as to the cost. Have students give examples of those costs – 750,000 dead American must raise some value questions.

  • Barb Gannon Jun 12, 2013 @ 7:11

    You should also recognize that Wilson was a historian who wrote a very important book that addresses the War, “Division and Reunion,” I actually have a copy of it published in 1914.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2013 @ 10:18

      That’s something I’ve never read. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • Keith Harris Jun 12, 2013 @ 6:44

    I agree with Barb – the vets were not particularly pleased with Wilson’s remarks. The problem with using Wilson’s speech alone in comparison to Lincoln (or Roosevelt’s in 1938, who said essentially the same thing) is that students could think that this was the consensus voice for the early-twentieth century. Wilson’s speech is remarkable not for the reconciliationist sentiment but for how atypical it was in the context of Gettysburg commemoration overall. There are many, many, many other Gettysburg addresses that look well beyond simple valor and the old “they fought for what they thought was right” theme. I would love to add some of those voices to your session but well…you know 🙂


    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2013 @ 10:17

      You raise some good points, Keith. I am not too worried about the extent to which Wilson is representative of any particular view at this time. My goal is to use it to introduce students to how to think about issues of memory. Here we have two presidents, who took the opportunity to interpret the battle for the nation at two very different points in time. I can certainly bring up your points during our discussion, which I am so much more sensitive to after having read your recent CWH article and especially Carrie’s new book. Nice to hear from you.

  • Craig Swain Jun 12, 2013 @ 6:14

    “What was Wilson’s goal in addressing his audience in 1914? ”

    Wilson was reluctant, when the 50th events were first planned, to even make an appearance at the event. John S. Heiser wrote of this in his book on the reunion. I don’t have that work handy, but recall he lists out some of the political reasons of the day. Regardless of the reason, that reluctance works into the context of the speech. Wilson was not happy with the shoes he had to wear that day. It comes through in the awkwardness of the speech’s text.

    His goal? To fill an unforgiving allotment of time… preferably with something so flat it is not quoted much past the week’s news cycle.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2013 @ 10:18

      Thanks, Craig.

  • Tom Thompson Jun 11, 2013 @ 19:10

    Who wrote that double talk, Peggy Noonan? I loved the final two paragraphs, but Wilson seemed hesitant to address the issues of the War. The opening is terrible. He altered the stakes of the conflict and made it about valor. As always, truth is the first casualty of war. He plunges knee deep into BS, and addresses his audience as if they had all fought for the same goals.

    Wilson grew up in a household where slavery was defended and rationalized by Biblical references. Tolerance and understanding were never to be his long suit. He talked here of peace, union and vigor. His nation at peace overlooked terror attacks upon blacks, his union forgot about institutions of government that dealt unfairly with the poor or the blacks. And ‘vigor’ I presume is double speak for “it’s a man’s world”.

    As he articulated his vision for the future in the final paragraphs he neglected inclusion of women, a fight that will escalate throughout his administration.

    All in all, Wilson was not a good balance against Lincoln. And with this speech’s weak beginning and strong finish, Wilson was not even a good balance for Wilson.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2013 @ 3:23

      OK, but how would you suggest I introduce some of these points in a discussion with students? What kinds of questions would you have me ask?

  • Brad Jun 11, 2013 @ 18:55

    The speech needs to be understood in terms of being given at the height of the Imperialist Era — new worlds to conquer and an empire to build upon following the Spanish Cuban American War and the acquisition of Hawaii. However, I wouldn’t frame it in the context of WW I because that was something we in hindsight as inevitable but was inconceivable in 1913. By comparison one could see that a Civil War in 1859 was possible.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2013 @ 3:23

      Good points, Brad. Thanks.

  • John Heiser Jun 11, 2013 @ 16:44

    An excellent subject, Kevin. Wilson only came to the reunion after Congressional Republicans criticized him for at first, declining to attend. The PA Committee in charge of reunion ceremonies scrambled to give him the opportunity to speak on the final day of the event just as it closed, and the challenges he put forth seemed hollow following what had been compared to a “Methodist love feast” the veterans had been experiencing. Given the tumult of the election of 1912 and changes occurring in the country at this time, Wilson’s speech should be discussed and analyzed. Good luck with this project!

    • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2013 @ 16:48

      Great points, John. I suspect that some of these kids probably took AP US History this year. If so, they should be familiar with the election of 1912. The speech is also perfectly positioned on the eve of WWI and the controversies surrounding America’s increased presence on the world stage. So much to talk about and so little time. Thanks.

  • Barb Gannon Jun 11, 2013 @ 16:18

    You should also point out that, according to the New York Times, veterans did not like the speach.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2013 @ 16:20

      I can ask the students to reflect on why the veterans did not like the speech.

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