This has been a week in the crosshairs of history past and present. A century and a half ago the most besieged president ever, under whom half the country went to war against the other half, made the most compelling case since the Declaration of Independence not only for union but for union’s noblest requisites. Now this week is haunted equally by that declaration spoken at the edge of the Gettysburg killing field and the cruel rejoinder to it almost exactly a hundred years later, by another assassin’s shot echoing the one that murdered Abraham Lincoln. Apparently gunfire is the common American answer to those who call upon a common destiny for the America of our dreams.
Of the 10 sentences that constitute the entirety of President Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg—following the battle there of the previous summer and on the occasion of a mass burial—eight are about the speech’s inadequacy. The final two have rendered inadequate almost everything that’s been said or written about them in the 150 years since; they’re two sentences at once revolutionary and incontrovertible, transcending all ambiguity in language less polemic than scriptural. Fifty years ago, and 100 years and 72 hours after the speech, the velocity of those sentences could still outpace any ballistics of Italian Carcano rifles aimed from high Dallas windows.
The formulation “of the people, by the people, for the people” now seems a simple, even obvious alignment of prepositions. The fact that Lincoln’s proposition still shocks us nearly as much as John Kennedy’s slaughter speaks to how audacious democracy is. Of, by, for: bang, bang, bang: three volleys returned by democracy at those who would lay it low. Week after week for the past five years citizens congregate in the streets of Washington, muttering of Islamic conspiracies and Kenyan beginnings, to make explicit the real politics that underlie controversies over websites and filibusters: This is a politics of character assassination that oppose the very fact and being of the current president, who is the color of bondage changing to freedom, the hue of one America changing to something better in the course of Lincoln’s speech, even as America angrily struggled to change back to something meaner in the split moments of a Texas afternoon.
Some presidents are bigger than themselves, bigger than their successes or failures. Their metaphoric resonance precedes them and we become the keepers of that metaphor if we’re willing to. Lincoln’s speech was bigger than he was, and Kennedy became bigger than his death. This week of strange anniversaries splendid and cataclysmic plays out against constant reminders that there’s more at stake in the current presidency than the speed bumps of a new social program—that what’s always at stake is freedom’s new birth for which Lincoln fought his war, and in which terms he recast the meaning of the war that eventually would give birth to the 44th presidency. What’s at stake are the consequences of November 1963’s martyrdom around which gathered the gales of racial justice that could make president five decades later the embodiment of Lincoln’s manifesto. On behalf of such stakes, no number of sentences is enough.