Dr Adam Smith (Senior Lecturer in the Department of History) shares his thoughts on Gettysburg performances
Originally posted on Adam I. P. Smith: Historian:
The extraordinary thing about the Gettysburg Address, which was given 150 years ago on Tuesday, is that people still venerate it as they do. It is, on one level, a pretty standard piece of wartime rhetoric, polarising the issues and claiming that the stakes are universal, eternal and profound. Churchill did the same sort of thing with his 1941 speeches — pre-empting the judgement of history by arguing that this would be our finest hour, and that the stakes were sunlit uplands versus a new dark age. But of course both Lincoln in 1863 and Churchill in 1941 really were speaking at a moment in history when if certain things had happened differently, the consequences may have been utterly profound. In both cases, had those leaders not been on the winning side, and helped shape the nature of the victory, we would undoubtedly now be living in a different world. Churchill, a great admirer of Lincoln and a student of American history, wrote an article in 1930 imagining what might have happened had Lee won at Gettysburg. At least thoughtful Americans retain the ability to use the speech as a way of critiquing the state of public life and democratic values, as Drew Faust recently did in the Washington Post.
But the fact is that Lincoln said nothing at Gettysburg that he’d not said before, and expressed not a single idea that countless other northerners — editors, preachers, diary writers, politicians, soldiers in their letters home — had not also articulated.