Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Another Real Gettysburg Address, 50 Years On

From the Gettysburg Times, buried on page seven on November 19th, 1963:

The following address, “100 Years After Lincoln's Gettysburg Address” by E. Washington Rhodes, editor-publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune and president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, was delivered at exercises in the Gettysburg National Cemetery Tuesday afternoon:


PD / Abbie Rowe
“I consider it a great privilege to have been invited as a representative of the American Negro people to participate in an occasion of such national, historic importance, at this time of racial tension and unrest. This, then, is an historic moment of high honor and high drama, which will be forever cherished by the American Negro people, as they march with heads erect to the goal of full and complete equality of citizenship rights.

“One hundred years after the Battle of Gettysburg, 100 years after the Gettysburg Address, the anguished expectations and hopes of Abraham Lincoln for a united nation remain unrealized, unfulfilled in American life. The present, grave Civil Rights struggle attest to this melancholy, tragic fact.

Great Statesman

“The 'March On Washington' on August 28, 1963, ended at the Lincoln Memorial – at the knees of Lincoln – at the knees of a magnificent stone image. Today, as we evoke the living, breathing presence of Abraham Lincoln here at Gettysburg, we and the entire nation should become acutely aware of his great, compassionate heart sustained by a statesmanship unparalleled in his day. By nature, by instinct, Lincoln understood statesmanship, and became not only one of America's greatest statesmen, but also one of the world's greatest statesmen and is so recognized throughout the world today.

“It has been said that 'statesmanship is characterized by wisdom, breadth of vision or regards for the general welfare rather than partisan interest.' May God grant to us in unstinting measure both the determination and the will to substitute statesmanship for racial antipathies – statesmanship for political expediency and frivolity – statesmanship for educational, social and economic inequities – statesmanship for fragmented views of life – statesmanship for sectional hatreds – statesmanship for walls of hostile silence. Such positive, affirmative, imperative action alone can satisfy the great compassionate heart of Abraham Lincoln 100 years after the Gettysburg Address.

“House Divided”

"Abraham Lincoln prior to his election as President, quoting from Holy Writ, declared with the wisdom of the ages that 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' He continued: 'I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free.'

“With all the vigor at my command and the great esteem which I have for my beloved country, I am respectfully urging my fellowmen to take note that this is as true today as it was centuries ago – a house divided against itself cannot stand.

“Second – class citizenship with all of its attendant evils must end. Unless men of substance and creative minds take positive action, move forward with alertness and stout hearts to remove this injustice, I fear that government of the people, by the people and for the people, will soon be endangered beyond repair.”

Rhodes visiting Kennedy's Oval Office in 1962.
PD / Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Scalia: A Real Gettysburg Address

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas, as he introduced the most potent speaker in Tuesday morning's ceremonies at Gettysburg, called it a, "special day," both in the lives of the handful of men and women raising their hands to take the oath of allegiance and become American citizens, but also, "in the life of our country."

Gettysburg, this place I call home, is momentous. Sometimes we lose that fact when we drive through the streets to get a quart of milk or head to the office. What happened here 150 years ago was truly a special moment in America's life. And no one underlined that fact better than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

I don't agree personally with the Justice's politics. It's tough to imagine Scalia, a strict Constitutional constructionist, adequately commemorating a speech which declared that the Declaration of Independence, America's founding in thought, trumped the Constitution's founding in law. But that's exactly what he did.

His words were brief. But unlike much of what was belabored, prepared and read aloud Tuesday morning, Scalia's words were spontaneous and heartfelt. We live in an era of prepared and formal, vetted and predetermined. The heartfelt and spontaneous shines when it happens.

Scalia's remarks were powerful precisely because they didn't try to address Lincoln. They only glancingly addressed the cemetery and the dead.

But what Scalia did do was talk about being an American, about the promise of the very word. And Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is about nothing but the promise of being American, the necessity of preserving that promise and, most crucially, extending it to larger groups of Americans, new and old.

I'm not sure the Justice even realized what he was doing was perfect. Instead of spending his moments at the podium before administering the oath praising Lincoln, instead of revamping or rephrasing 272 words, instead of at great lengths dissecting a piece of pure American art, Scalia said something new for today, for us.

And the most crucial strength?

Scalia said, "I," and, "my." He spoke from his heart, he spoke personally. And in doing so, he captured the meaning of the day, of the anniversary, of being American.

You can watch a video of this morning's ceremony here (skip ahead to 1 hour, 17 minutes). Or read a transcript below:

The morning sun silhouettes
the Address monument.
Before I administer the oath, I want to say a few words of welcome to the new citizens. What makes us Americans, what unites us, is quite different from that which unites other countries.

There's a word, 'unAmerican.' We used to have a House unAmerican Activities Committee. There's no equivalent word in foreign languages. It would mean nothing in French political discourse to refer to something as unFrench, or in German political discourse to refer to something as unGerman. It is only Americans, we Americans, who identify ourselves not by our blood or by our color, or by our race or by where we were born, but rather by our fidelity to certain political principles.

That's very strange. It's unique in human history, I believe.

We are, as you heard from the Director [of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] a nation of immigrants, who have come here mostly for two reasons. First, for freedom. From the pilgrims in the 17th century to the Cubans and the North Koreans in the 20th and 21st centuries.

And that freedom, of course, is not free, as the dead who rest buried here can demonstrate. The last line of our 'Star Spangled Banner' is, 'the land of the free and the home of the brave.' The two go together. Freedom is for the brave.

The second reason they came, these immigrants, was for opportunity. My father, who was the most patriotic man I ever knew, used to say that in the old country, if your father was a shoemaker, you would be a shoemaker. And in America, you could be whatever you were willing to work hard enough to be and had the talent to be.

And his son ended up on the Supreme Court.

My Grandmother expected me to be President; I didn't quite make that. (Audience Laughter) But it was possible. It is possible in America.

So welcome, my soon-to-be fellow citizens, to the nation of Americans. May America bring you all that you expect from it. And may you give it all that it expects from you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Interpretation is Evolution: Whose History?

When I try to explain to non-history people what my degree means, I used to hit wall after all. It was so hard explaining exactly what, "Applied History," really means. People understand, "History," but the idea of public history have a certain brand of special sauce added on top.

I used to say something akin to, "doing Park Ranger things," though that never really worked. When I had a group on an historical landscape, I'd often just say, "Public History is this."

It doesn't work. Those definitions aren't clear.

Shippensburg's peculiar name for the department helps a bit. At Shippensburg, the department's name of "Applied History" mimics a ton of other disciplines. Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics spring to mind.

Applied History, in my reading of the field, is just like those two: it concerns itself not with "pure" history, but instead with a study of the past firmly rooted in what it can do in a practical way for the modern world.

We aren't simply presenting "pure" history, fully-formed when we are interpreting. Instead, we are trying to offer a usable past for the present and the future.

And today is inherently different than yesterday. That's the way time's arrow works. This all means every day's interpretation must not only be about the past, but use the past to talk about who we are today, how we can draw inspiration or warning from the events of yesterday to forge better tomorrows.

Which brings us to the sticky situation of the actors of the past. The people of yesterday desperately tried to encode their meanings within the landscape of history as immortal and final. We seem hardwired as humans to seek immortality. My meaning for this artifact trumps all future meanings the people of the past seem to scream at us.

They built monuments to ensure mortality. They donated artifacts to museum collections to enshrine themselves in institutions for eternity. They tried to shape the future's perception of their today.

I don't care why they enshrined what they enshrined.

I was going to phrase that idea less harshly, but there it is. The actors of the past are long dead. Their agency departed with them into the grave. Their interpretations of artifacts, their specific desired enshrined meanings, mean naught when I'm helping the people of today find their own meaning in something.

Many in the Civil War community are decrying the merger of the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center in Richmond. There are voices fearing how the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy might be used to tell the whole story of the war.

"That's part of the point," Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center was quoted in an AP story about the merger. "They have an incredible collection that is absolutely Confederate strong, but there are a lot of artifacts that have not been able to be fully explored or used to relate to the African-American experience or immigrants or the role of Jews."

No rebel veteran ever foretold this.

Dan Sickles erected a monument to himself in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg in 1893. He intended it as a symbol of his importance. When I take people there, it is equally a symbol of his braggadocio and hubris. Does that pain me? Not a lick.

Rebel veterans donated artifacts to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the detritus of war, to create the core collection of the Museum of the Confederacy. To them they were sainted artifacts of a Lost Cause. But today, audiences need other meanings, other stories.

We are a broad racial tapestry still wrestling with the fruits of that war. What in the 1880s was a photographic artifact that a veteran thought told the story of two friends fighting through four years of war, today can be an image of racial power and the Stockholm Syndrome of Southern slavery. Did he intend for it to be used that way? No. Does that pain me? No.

If we let the people of the past encode what that past means, solidify it for all eternity, there would be no need for historians. Ever.

Reinterpretation, revision and rediscovery of the hidden elements of the past is what we do. We find the meaning of the present in the story of the past. History, and especially applied history, is evolution.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It's OK to Giggle: Colbert's Gettysburg Address

Colbert recites the Gettysburg Address.
There hasn't been all that much righteous indignation from the lands of historians and the historically inclined public. I'd wager they just haven't noticed. I was a little surprised, to be honest. As soon as I hit play on Stephen Colbert's rendition of the Gettysburg Address, part of Ken Burns' Learn the Address marketing initiative for his upcoming documentary, I figured the flame war was inevitable.

Stephen Colbert, donning goofy stovepipe hat and faux-fur beard begins his address intoning like a cross between Atticus Finch and Royal Dano. Standing on his set, with animated American flag background, swapping between camera 1, 2 and 3, Colbert's audience doesn't quite know how to react.

He is mugging for the camera, shifting intonation in a way the audience can't help but giggle at. He turns and gestures, at one point employs one of my favorite sight gags: hold for laughs too long and check your watch. And at first glance, it seems entirely irreverent. One of the few YouTube commenters asks plaintively, "Why are people laughing?!?" Another demands that Stephen, "have some respect for the men that lost their lives."

Stephen Colbert's reading is unrelentingly complex, though. First you need to realize the raw fact of the matter: this is a man (the actor Colbert), playing a character (the pundit Colbert), playing the character's conception of a character (Lincoln). This is Colbert's imagining of how "Colbert" might imagine Lincoln.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is hilariously complex to the modern tongue and ear. The address is ten sentences long, and took the President about two and a half minutes to read, working out to an average of 15 seconds per sentence. That's a huge number. Most of Burns' readings clock in around a minute and a half, meaning Lincoln was far more deliberate than the politicos and famous who seem to be rushing through; sort of like Colbert is.

Lincoln's sentences weave and dart in true 19th century rhetorical fashion. I've never diagrammed the sentences of Lincoln's address (I don't really want to relive middle school), but I'd wager they are a sprawling nightmare of complex appositional tree branches.

Colbert deliberately tumbles through the phrase, "it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced," which as beautiful as I've always found it, is an amazingly complex and labyrinthine phrase. It's a wonder anyone had enough breath to complete even one of those freight-train long sentences. Colbert lets that feeling through, as he intentionally runs out of breath on, "to which they gave the last full measure of devotion."

All of this is to say one simple thing: Colbert knows what he's saying. He understands its meaning and its message, maybe not fully and completely, but still understanding to a great extent what Lincoln meant.

He's not taking the Gettysburg Address lightly, just playfully.

Stephen Colbert had the good sense to read the Gettysburg Address before he recorded his version and didn't just try to do a cold reading like others in the series. I'm looking at you, Louis C.K. You shouldn't need Jerry Seinfeld to brilliantly explain what the Address means. Just read the damned thing and let it all sink in. The language might be dense, awkward and (as Colbert shows) potentially hilarious to our 21st century ear. But it's not that hard to feel.

It reminds me of those times I was a church lector back in High School. I made it a point to understand my readings. This didn't simply mean looking up the pronunciation of, "Melchisedec." It meant understanding the sentence, feeling the words roll in my mouth and the meaning roll in my mind long before I stood up in church to read those words. I wasn't simply reading cold; I was delivering the readings understood.

Colbert didn't read the Address; he delivered the Address. Delivering something, even in a comic presentation, means inherently you need to understand what it means.

And Colbert knew what it meant. I have no doubt.