John Hope Franklin
November 19, 1998
Thank you, distinguished platform guests, distinguished historians of the Civil War and other periods, great and good citizens of this community Gettysburg, ladies and gentlemen. I can say without fear of contradiction that November the Nineteenth, 1998, is a much more exciting time to be in Gettysburg than to be in Washington. For today we commemorate, in this place, an anniversary that can never be duplicated or replicated in Washington or anywhere else, and that is the one hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln. Permit me to offer the solemn opinion that Tom Brokaw and NBC have their priorities out of order in believing that anything can happen in Washington today that is more exciting and indeed more important, than listening to the Gettysburg Address read here in Gettysburg on this day. I recall reading it myself at this place many years ago, and it is as thrilling to hear it today as it was yesterday. I am happy to be here, even though it involved rearranging my own schedule in order to remain through this event. This is an honor and a privilege that I could not forego.
I shall make no effort to compare the Address by Lincoln with statements made by other Presidents at critical points in their time of office, for there simply is no comparison. There is, for example, Woodrow Wilson’s speech setting forth the 14 points that would serve as the blueprint for the post-war period after WWI. There is the Four Freedoms Address by Franklin D. Roosevelt that set forth the major objectives of WWII. There is the address by Dwight D. Eisenhower, warning of the dangerous threat of the industrial military complex to the freedom achieved by WWII. All of these statements and more, made by great leaders at critical junctures in the nation’s history, have a significance and importance that must be appreciated and respected. They most assuredly addressed important items, important problems, important issues at critical times in the nation’s history, but they pale in any comparison with the Gettysburg Address, that comparison is inevitably invidious, not only because of the simple yet sublime eloquence of Lincoln’s words, but also because those simple words gripped the imagination and commanded the loyalty of the supporters of the war as no other words had ever done, or indeed, could ever do. And those words have been appreciated by so many during the last one and one-third centuries, but at no time have they been no more appreciated than by those who come to this place and render this appreciation on this annual occasion.
Lincoln fully appreciated what some [of] his predecessors had said and done as they faced crucial times or hard decisions. And I like to think that he, too, the student of America’s past sought to emulate what some of his predecessors had done. He surely knew of the dark days of the American Revolution, after the defeat and long winter at Valley Forge when George Washington was deeply depressed by the misfortunes that successive defeats had brought to his men and their cause. It was not only the entry of France into the war on the side of the colonists, but also Washington’s long decision to adopt the policy of bringing diversity into the was by accepting blacks (slaves and few) into the columns of the patriots, that certainly contributed to the victories of 1778 and 1781. Washington did not have the gift to write a memorable statement in a few short sentences, but the experience affected him greatly. Indeed, I would venture to say, that it may well have had something to do with his emancipating his own slaves upon his death. That act was, in itself, an eloquent statement of his belief that equal rights, like the risks of fighting and dying for independence, was something that should be shared by all.
Perhaps Jefferson, much better schooled than Washington, could have sounded a rallying cry for freedom, even if it fell short of Lincoln’s achievement. But he seemed disinclined to do so, not because of his personal attachment to a slave or some slaves but because of his personal attachment to the institution of slavery. If he softened his thoughts about the inferiority of blacks, that he expressed in such detail in his Notes on Virginia, it was not sufficient to loosen his hold on his slaves. It will be recalled that he sought to persuade his young protégée, Thomas Coles, not to migrate to the west after fulfilling his intention of emancipating his slaves; but Jefferson advised him to remain in Virginia and care for his slaves. To his credit, Coles did not follow the advice of the sage of Monticello. Instead, he sold his land, set his slaves free, and moved to Illinois where he became Governor. I like to think that perhaps Coles’ words and deeds had an influence, however indirect, on a young lawyer in Springfield that would be known someday as the “Great Emancipation”.
I dwell on Jefferson because he was the greatest hope that the colonists had of producing a talent that could cope with the problem of slavery, and perhaps bring it to an end, even before the dawn of the 19th century. Having failed to call for an end of slavery in the Declaration of Independence, he had other opportunities. He could have called for a crusade against slavery when he denounced the pirates on the Barbary Coast of North Africa. He could have been unequivocally opposed to slavery in the new territory of Louisiana that had been acquired during his presidency in 1803. He could have seized the opportunity to end slavery when he called for the end of the slave trade, as was provided by the Constitution; and he did that in 1807. He declined to do any of these things, not because he could not do so, but because he relished the life of living from the labor of others, of exploiting others, not so much for their bodies as for their spirits and their hearts and their personalities. I wish that Jefferson had taken a stand in 1776 or in 1801 or in 1807. It was easier for him in 1807 than it would be for anyone in 1861, ’62, or ’63. He just might have spared us a bloody Civil War and saved us a few hundred thousand lives. In so doing, he would have rendered unnecessary our gathering here today. On the other hand, we might well have gathered today not to observe the Gettysburg Address as we know it. We might well have gathered to celebrate the anniversary of Lincoln’s signing a fair housing bill or a comprehensive health plan, or indeed, an act providing for universal higher education. Without a Civil War, we could have enjoyed something approaching a national interracial peace at least a century before we seriously addressed the matter in our own time.
So we gather here today on this sacred ground to commemorate the anniversary of a great special occasion. We do it proudly and solemnly. We can only regret that the genius that went into the writing of the Gettysburg Address could not have been put into some other use, a use that could have advanced all of us toward a more perfect union of universal peace, understanding, and brotherhood. Thank you.
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