Shakespeare, Lincoln & the Gettysburg Address

“…in a word, The seeming truth which cunning times put on To entrap the wisest.” lines from the Merchant of Venice“…in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.”

(Merchant of Venice, act 3, sc. 2)

The 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address has prompted many to explain its significance and to celebrate Lincoln’s sainthood. Which is not entirely accurate, in that Lincoln is more than a saint. He is for America what Zeus was for the Greeks. And while Zeus lived on Mt. Olympus, Lincoln stands in a new Parthenon sitting on a throne, in Washington, DC.

He is also immortalized in Disneyland’s Mount Rushmore, the first successful attempt to convert a mountain into an artifact – whereas in Disneyland they converted an artifact into a mountain and called it the Matterhorn.

Starting with Obama, a bevy of scholars, (including some Anglosaxonized African-American savvies), though not sparkling with the fire of Homer, have repeated the repeatable, omitted the questionable and disregarded the unpalatable, in celebration of Lincolnianism.

To question Lincoln is tantamount to denying the Eucharist in Catholic circles – a heresy easily converted into a charge of “unamericanism”, even if there is no such intent.

The Gettysburg address starts with, “Four score and seven years ago (that means 87), our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

All men are created equal?” Maybe… less the slaves, because they were not people, the Indians, because they were not white, the women, because they were not men and the poor because they were not rich. Apart from these inconsequential exceptions, we may agree with the proposition.

Not all did. Here is what Frederick Douglass had to say on the subject,

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him more bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Mythology affects both the public and the private Lincoln. To those who have been twice-born in the capacious bosom of Jesus, it may be a shock to discover that Lincoln was an atheist. He even wrote a book called “Infidelity”, meaning lack of Faith

When questioned about the issue during the campaign for his election he answered with one of his many masterpieces of political evasiveness, “I could never support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy and scoffer at, religion.” The keyword here is, of course, “open”. But Lincoln, like the Jesuits, did not lie, was able to shift the argument to his own advantage and remove the implied charge of atheism.

When a congressman, he had opposed the 1848 war against Mexico, waged to seize the West of the continent. He said,

Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.”

Which is what the Articles of Confederation of 1776 state unequivocally. But when the South decided to follow Lincoln’s advice and become independent, he said they couldn’t. When reminded of his 1848 pronouncement, he gave an answer that should be memorized and repeated at least 10 times a day by any politician worthy of being one,

You would hardly think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” Translation, I was wrong when I was right, and I am right when I am wrong.

In 1860 a small part of the people thought that the main issue of the Civil War was the abolition of slavery – the actual issue was the preservation of the Union. When the South said that they had every right to secede, as per the Articles of Confederation, Lincoln moved from the factual to the mystical. The Union was an absolute to be preserved at all costs.

Most readers may be aware of the pronouncement,

“If I can say that Union without freeing any slaves, I will do that. If I can save the union by freeing some and leaving others alone, I will do that.”

Current day African-American hagiographers ignore that early in his administration, Lincoln had acquired land in Central America for the newly freed blacks. He said,

Why should the people of your race be colonized and where? Why should they leave this country? This is perhaps the first question for proper consideration. You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference that exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss; but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both. Your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated.”

On the other hand Lincoln had the uncanny ability to solemnly maintain two contradictory views, shifting from one to the other according to the direction of the political wind

He said that,

“… the institution of slavery is founded on injustice and bad policy, but the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends to increase rather than abate its evils.”

Lincoln could adhere to the Constitution when he wanted to. Congress, because of the 10th amendment (reserving to the states rights not specifically given to the national government), could not constitutionally have barred slavery in the states.

When it was proposed to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, which did not have the rights of a state but was directly under the jurisdiction of Congress, Lincoln said that it would be constitutional. But it should not be done unless the people in the District wanted it. The historian Hofstadter said of this statement, “it breathes the fire of an uncompromising insistence on moderation.”

At his inauguration in March 1861, Lincoln said,

“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists.”

The South already knew Lincoln’s ability to shift policy. Incidentally, interested readers may want to consult Jefferson Davis’ “Short History of the Confederate States”. Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederation. In his book he makes the argument that slavery was not the main reason for the secession from the North. It was a conflict of interests between the Northern industrial-financial-military complex (as we would call it today) and the needs of the still mostly agricultural South.

Readers may remember that Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration of Jan 1 1863 freed slaves in those areas fighting against the Union, but did not free slaves in the North. The London Spectator, with cool British aplomb, commented, “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”

The issue of Lincoln’s interpretation of the Constitution is actual today. The Constitution is a kind of magic formula so that he who invokes it can pretend that his (often) wretched purposes do not arise from his own sick self. But rather and ostensibly from a document that cannot speak, rebut, contradict or defend itself against the impudence of the proposed interpretation.

It is a constant theme of American policy, especially foreign policy – to promote Evil branding it as Good. So that the actual reversal of justice and the annihilation of humanity are but an interpretation of the Constitution.  Interpretation achieved by a painstaking mixing of meanings, partial truths, shadowy statements, evasive utterings and splitting of hair.

To the common man, all this is presented as the product of the “best and the brightest”, whereas it is but a personal (and often evil) interest, hidden under a cloak of questionable righteousness.

But Lincoln abolished slavery… I can hear the  Lincolnites saying. Yes, he did, at the cost of six hundred thousand dead. Not only, but lexical assuetude leads to believe that emancipation coincides with freedom. It is not so. The end of slavery in the South made conditions even worse for African Americans, as well documented in D. Blackmon’s book, “Slavery by another Name”. It took another 100 years, and more dead and wounded, to move emancipation from a theory to some kind of practice.

Most of what above reported, finds no interest or is lost in the memory of the majority. According to the pundits, Americans are not interested in history and do not like to theorize.

The consequence is not, however, what you would expect. The French, for example, who are great readers and theorists, became so addicted to political experiment that, in the 230 plus years since American Independence they produced one Directory, one Consulate, two empires, three restorations of the monarchy, and five republics.

All this calls for a very non-Shakespearean ending, “When ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.” Read it any way you like.

In the Play.    Prior to selecting which basket to choose (the correct basket will entail marrying Portia), Bassanio meditates on some truths that will lead him to discard the gold basket.

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