Guest Essayist: Professor Will Morrisey, William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College

What Is the “New Birth of Freedom”?

 Lincoln came to the Gettysburg field of the dead and spoke of “a new birth of freedom.”  What did he mean by it?

A lot of men killed a lot of other men at Gettysburg during those three days in July of 1863. But that happened more than once in the Civil War: at Antietam, in the Wilderness, at Cold Harbor, and many other places.  People remember those places and those battles, too, but not the way they remember Gettysburg.

Maybe because this was the battle? The one in which the Confederate States of America lost not just a battle but began to lose the war?  But why did they lose this battle and that war?

They lost militarily, and also lost the way of life they were defending because General Lee miscalculated. He didn’t get his arithmetic right.  As we’d put it today, in his heart he wanted to stop `playing defense’ and `go on offense.’ But he didn’t have the numbers of troops he needed to go on offense. His heart overbore his head. Cemetery Ridge became the graveyard of the Southern regime, the Southern way of life.

General Sherman did his arithmetic right later on, when he made Georgia howl, breaking the Southern regime by destroying the plantations that had animated it.  Before the fighting started, Sherman had tried to tell the Confederates that they had their arithmetic wrong. In Louisiana in 1860 he told Southerners that war is not as glorious as you think; it’s not an aristocratic idyll of knights in shining armor. A year before the presidential election of 1860, speaking in Cincinnati, Lincoln had said that, too: the Northern states have the Southern states outnumbered, and Northerners will fight no less valiantly than Southerners will do, if it comes to fighting.

Southerners didn’t believe it. At Gettysburg they began to believe Yankee arithmetic.

Great military commanders show us something about ourselves, as they make their calculations.  They show us that to win a war you must do a uniquely human thing: counting. You must exhibit your humanity while simultaneously treating men, your fellow human beings, like ciphers in the cruelest of equations. You must deploy the most distinctively human capacity endowed by God, reason, in sending your men, for whom you bear moral responsibility, to slaughter other men as if they were animals, and to risk their being slaughtered by those they intend to kill.

And as the commander of such commanders, as the Commander in Chief of such calculating men, You, Abraham Lincoln, and You, Jefferson Davis, must give a human–that is to say a rational–justification for this military arithmetic, which is amoral in itself. We remember Gettysburg because there it was that Lincoln gave to his fellow citizens exactly such a justification in the greatest American speech ever, in defense of the purpose for which the speaker commanded men to fight the greatest American battle of the greatest American war. America, the country that declared its independence in a logical syllogism, a rational argument whose premise was that all men are subject to God’s arithmetic, that all men are created equal and thus may need to kill in order to defend their right to life and their right to a way of life that is fully human: America and the reason for America were defended by this great action, which Lincoln then vindicated in his great speech.

To understand what Lincoln meant by a new birth of freedom we first need to know what Lincoln meant by self-government. Lincoln once said that self-government “lies at the bottom of all my ideas of just government, from beginning to end.” In some of his earliest public statements, Lincoln defined republican or representative government in America as consisting of “a political edifice of liberty and equal rights” secured by the consent of the governed–a security that rests on the “duty” of any would-be representative of the people to “make known” to “the people whom [he] propose[s] to represent” his “sentiments with regard to human affairs.” Self-government rests on that natural right of the people to justice, but also on the need for government by popular consent in order that justice be done, and on the consequent obligation of the people’s would-be governors to disclose the opinions that will guide them when in office.

But if popular consent and natural right conflict? Is there not a tension in the Declaration of Independence between unalienable right and government by the consent of the governed? Theoretically, one can solve this problem by defining `consent’ as `rational assent.’ Genuine consent must be rational; it must be founded upon the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. But this theoretical solution scarcely solves the practical, political problem of squaring consent with justice, a problem that will endure so long as self-government exists. Government of the people by the people–popular self-government–might not work out as government for the people, or at least not for all of them, if the majority enslaves the minority.

One of the Founders set down his thoughts on this dilemma in its most dangerous American manifestation.  As he prepared a series of essays for publication in 1791, Congressman James Madison wrote a note to himself. “In proportion as slavery prevails in a State, the Government, however democratic in name, must be aristocratic in fact. The power lies in a part [of the people] instead of the whole, in the hands of property, not of numbers.” He drew a telling conclusion: “The Southern States of America,” very much including his native Virginia, “are on the same principle aristocracies.” As an architect of the new Constitution, Madison knew that Article IV, Section 4 says, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” He knew, therefore, that the regime of the American Union contained a self-contradiction–the potential for disunion. With most Americans of his generation, he hoped that the eventual removal of slavery would remove this potentially fatal flaw.  In fact many states did put slavery on the road to extinction in that first, founding generation. But his “Southern States” did not.

Slavery denied self-government to a substantial portion of the people living in America. The crisis over slavery threw into hazard republican government itself by raising in practice an old philosophic controversy: to secure natural rights, must government overawe the people, lest they break out into anarchy or coalesce into majority tyranny? Or is a very powerful government itself a greater danger to natural rights than the anarchy and popular tyranny it prevents? In Lincoln’s words, “Is there, in all republics, this inherent, fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” No parchment enumeration of civil rights can eliminate that problem.

Lincoln came to the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg to say in public what Madison in his prudence could only write to himself.  Lincoln again raised the question of popular self-government in speech only after American soldiers, in a demonstration of military arithmetic, had answered it by their actions. He came to the cemetery to talk about the beginning of American political life. In declaring their independence, their self-government, in 1776, “our fathers,” the founders, “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Conceived, brought forth: this is the language of childbirth. It is a paradoxical childbirth, associated with fathers, not mothers. Somehow the signers of the Declaration of Independence were fathers and mothers.

“Conceived” and “brought forth” are from Numbers 11, the King James Version. Moses asks his angry God, “Was it I who conceived this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that thou shouldest say to me, `Carry them in thy bosom as a nursing father beareth the suckling child, unto the land which thou swearest unto their fathers?” Americans, the new Israelites, were brought forth from Egypt–the British Empire–and from the tyranny of Pharaoh–George III. Moses or Washington could not bear this burden alone. God tells Moses to gather the elders, and say to the people, “Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the ears of the Lord….” The Lord’s Spirit will be upon not Moses alone, but upon the elders. Moses wishes that the Spirit of prophecy were upon the whole people. In America, the elders were of course the founders; Lincoln, like Washington before him, wished that the spirit of independence, of liberty and equality, were upon the whole people.

The Declaration calls the Americans a people–a people who, like the Israelites, existed before and after their independence. Lincoln described the bringing for of a new nation; a nation therefore must mean an independent people.  This independent people was conceived in liberty. Long before independence, before George III and parliament designed to reduce them to slavery, Americans had enjoyed civil liberty–limited self-government over their own `internal affairs.’ The new nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal.” In part because Britain had required some colonies to permit slavery and, as recently as 1769, had vetoed a colonial enactment to suppress the slave trade, Americans had not secured the God-endowed unalienable rights inherent in human equality; the slaves obviously had not secured those rights, but neither had the free. My violation of your natural equality potentially threatens mine (even if mine seems secure) because in permitting the violation of your natural equality I have in practice contradicted the principle of natural equality. That principle applies to me as well as to you, as a creature of the same species, the same natural rank. By asserting their full, political self-government on the foundation of the principle of natural equality, Americans rejected the principle of slavery even as they tolerated its practice, and for Lincoln as for the founders this was crucial.

The self-evident truth of human equality enunciated in the Declaration has become a proposition in Lincoln’s formulation. He means not a mere statement but the premise of a syllogism or an axiom of a geometric proof; “the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of a free society,” he wrote. The nursing fathers of the Declaration held the truth of human equality to be self-evident. But Americans since then, like the Israelites, had disregarded the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.  “When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim, `all men are created equal,’ a self-evident truth; but now when we are grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim `a self-evident lie’”–as one antebellum pro-slavery politician indeed had done. The proposition, maxim, or axiom of the Declaration is no less self-evident now, Lincoln maintains, but it is so to fewer people, as too many are blinded by passion, like little King Georges. The loss of the dread of tyrants leads a selfish people to insufferable pride. What they’ve really lost is their fear of God, who created men and endowed them with unalienable rights, and who allows tyrants to serve as the scourge of the wicked. Americans were losing their self-mastery in their chase for mastery over others. To correct them, the war in its action and Lincoln in his speech must show how cruel the axioms of moral geometry can be, when violated and when defended against their violators.

The Civil War–the judgment of God upon the new Israelites–tested “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”  Israel old and new are particular nations with universal significance. A republic, a nation dedicated to the protection of equal natural rights, requires popular sovereignty. Constitutional union founded upon popular rights cannot survive an appeal from lawful ballots–the election of Lincoln in accordance with the Constitution–to unlawful bullets, if those bullets go unanswered in deeds and in words.  Even as labor is prior to capital, the people are prior to government; only a government that oppresses its people, attacks the people’s own laws, can justly be overthrown by force. The people of Israel escaped Egypt, the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh, but did not thereby release themselves from the law of God. The people of America escaped the British Empire, the tyrannical rule of George III, but not release themselves from the law of God. Just the contrary: to survive as a republic they had to bind themselves all the more closely to the life-giving, rights-endowing God; for, Lincoln explains, “the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon the definition of liberty.” What is self-evident to the sheep is not self-evident to the wolf, which would use the lives of the sheep for himself and, in human clothing, destroy political liberty on the same principle. As the duly elected shepherd, Lincoln must speak and act to prevent the sheep from beginning to think like the wolf, for in doing so they unwittingly collaborate in their own eventual destruction.

The consecration of the Gettysburg cemetery by the people–the consecrating of themselves, for tomorrow, when the war will be over–reaffirmed the people’s dedication to the `old’ birth of freedom, to “the unfinished work” of the nursing fathers who brought them forth from Egypt but did not live to see them enter the Promised Land. Such dedication meant that the Spirit of the Lord–for the new Israelites, the once-again self-evident truths of the Declaration–will be upon not only the nursing fathers but upon all the people. The new birth of freedom, witnessed at the Gettysburg field of the dead, meant the emancipation of the slaves–one-eighth of the American population–and the full  emancipation of freemen, including the former slave masters, who had contradicted their own right to rule by claiming a universal truth as if it were a narrow, particular entitlement.

Read the Gettysburg Address here:

Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.

Friday, May 24, 2013 – Essay #70



2 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    Professor Morrisey, I believe this is the most powerful and significant essay since Constituting America began these programs. I’m going to have to reread it several more times to get its full impact and significance on our current day events. I wish that more Americans could read just this essay; is there some way you can get this in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal? Perhaps they would publish it in November, on the anniversary of the Address? At a minimum, post it on Constituting America’s facebook page so we can share it. Thanks for taking time to compose this.


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