Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Fundamental Nonsensicality of the Gettysburg Address: An Irreverent View by H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken, the famous muckraker and journalist, discussed the Lincoln myth and the Gettysburg Address back in 1922, in an essay called “Five Men at Random,” Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 171-76.  With thanks to Nathaniel Strickland.
The backwardness of the art of biography in These States is made shiningly visible by the fact that we have yet to see a first-rate life of either Lincoln or Whitman. Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry—the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order— but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

The growth of the Lincoln legend is truly amazing. He becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the chautauquas and Y. M. C. A.’s. All the popular pictures of him show him in his robes of state, and wearing an expression fit for a man about to be hanged. There is, so far as I know, not a single portrait of him showing him smiling—and yet he must have cackled a good deal, first and last: who ever heard of a storyteller who didn’t? Worse, there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. What could be more absurd? Lincoln, in point of fact, was a practical politician of long experience and high talents, and by no means cursed with inconvenient ideals. On the contrary, his career in the Illinois Legislature was that of a good organization man, and he was more than once denounced by reformers. Even his handling of the slavery question was that of a politician, not that of a fanatic. Nothing alarmed him more than the suspicion that he was an Abolitionist. Barton tells of an occasion when he actually fled town to avoid meeting the issue squarely. A genuine Abolitionist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the day after the first battle of Bull Run. But Lincoln waited until the time was more favorable—until Lee had been hurled out of Pennsylvania, and, more important still, until the political currents were safely running his way. Always he was a wary fellow, both in his dealings with measures and in his dealings with men. He knew how to keep his mouth shut.

Nevertheless, it was his eloquence that probably brought him to his great estate. Like William Jennings Bryan, he was a dark horse made suddenly formidable by fortunate rhetoric. The Douglas debate launched him, and the Cooper Union speech got him the presidency. This talent for emotional utterance, this gift for making phrases that enchanted the plain people, was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fireworks—the childish rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple— and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered to-day. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.
Mencken was a perceptive, honest witness to modern foibles and fallacies. About Lincoln, who was not a Christian (and who despised Christianity), Mencken was spot on.

Today there is a "civil war" within the Republican Party, the do-nothing moderates vs the liberty loving Tea Party and conservatives. However, neither faction has ever analyzed the paradigms and myths that inspire them to so weakly resist the advance of statism. They hold as their ideal a man who was the antithesis of limited government, an anti-Christian statist and corporatist who makes Obama look like a rank amateur.

Abraham Lincoln was far more dictatorial, more antagonistic to the Constitution and the will of the people, than even Barack Obama. The former was a man who shut down hundreds of newspapers, imprisoned thousands of civilians in rank dungeons for years, without charges or trial, illegally suspended habeas corpus, blockaded and invaded sovereign states, made war on women and children, burned (through his approval of the actions of his generals) whole towns, universities and private farms to the ground. AND, he threw the entire state legislature of Maryland into prison to prevent them from seceding from the newly involuntary union.

Modern conservatives need to stop their reflexive support of the Lincoln Myth. There is nothing about Abraham Lincoln that any freedom-loving American could ever identify with or wish to emulate.  Abraham Lincoln was about unlimited power and naked force, and therefore not an example for modern conservatives to follow.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

King Richard III: Villain or Hero? Brits Still Arguing 528 Years Later

King Richard III,
As He Looks Today
I saw a fascinating account of King Richard III yesterday on the Smithsonian Channel.  Earlier this year British archaeologists deduced the location of Richard's grave and found his skeletal remains.  DNA and other evidence confirmed the skeleton's identity as that of King Richard III, killed in battle at Bosworth Field near Leicester, England on August 22, 1485.  The battle was the culmination of the "War of the Roses," an internecine fight among Englishmen as to who was entitled to the throne of England.  In short, it was a civil war.

King Richard III has long been painted as a villain by English authors and tradition.  Shakespeare wrote a play, "Richard III," where Richard III is depicted as an evil, ruthless murderer, with hunchback and withered arm.  "Now is the winter of our discontent," says the Shakespearean Richard, the line most famous from that play.  But was this depiction accurate?  British citizens disagree.  Supporters of Richard III have stated "history is written by the winners" (and how we know that to be true), with unsavory facts about Richard greatly exaggerated or fabricated.  These supporters point out that the negative imagery of King Richard was politically motivated, what we call "self-legitimizing myths," as a means of justifying the winners' war and clothing it in robes of righteousness.  Again, we Confederate descendants are all-too familiar with such tactics.  In order for the Yankees to be proven right, our ancestors must be proven wrong, unrighteous, and evil.

Now for some facts.

King Edward IV, Richard's brother, died in April 1483, and Edward V (Richard's nephew) was in line for the throne to succeed his father.  Here's where the plot thickens.

King Richard III, Facial Reconstruction From the Skull
Richard III was appointed "Lord Protector" of his nephews, both sons of Edward IV.  They were Edward V and his brother, also named Richard.  Richard III ensconced both nephews in the Tower of London, not as prisoners, but as wards.  Before Edward V could be crowned king, however, his mother's marriage to Edward IV was somehow declared invalid (sounds like dirty politics to me), making Edward V ineligible for the throne.  Instead, Richard III ascended the throne in 1483, after which the two nephews were never seen again.  Although it has never been proved that Richard III did them in, many believe that this is what happened.  Still, it should be noted, Richard III had a legitimate claim to the throne through both his parents.

Loyalists to Edward IV challenged Richard III's right to the throne, but were defeated in battle.  A second challenge was mounted by Henry Tudor, who raised an army and attacked Richard III.  I do not know why or if Tudor was entitled to the throne, but he won it nevertheless by brute force, defeating the forces of Richard III at Bosworth Field where King Richard III died courageously in battle.  Overwhelmed by a crowd of warriors attacking him on all sides, Richard was killed by an ax blow to the back of his head.

Richard's body was taken to Leicester where it was hastily buried under the altar of Grey Friars Church there.  Five centuries passed and the the church was replaced by a modern parking lot, where the remains were located by ground penetrating radar on February 4, 2013.   Radio carbon dating of the remains, as well as DNA comparison to known lineal descendants, confirmed that the remains were those of Richard III.  Plus, the skeleton had severe curvature of the spine (scoliosis), which Richard III was known to possess. Further, the skull bore battle marks that fit the eye-witness descriptions of his demise. A forensic reconstruction of King Richard's face was made (see above), and it greatly resembles paintings made of Richard in the years shortly after his death.

Now the Second War of the Roses has commenced, with Brits arguing as to where the remains will be reinterred, in Leicester Cathedral or in York Minster.  A court is to decide the dispute later this month.

Outsiders often accuse American Southerners of "refighting the civil war," which ended 148 years ago.  However, we are not the only ones who continue to argue over who did what to whom and why.  The British have been refighting the War of the Roses for 528 years.  As for King Richard III, I favor giving him the benefit of the doubt.  He was a great Englishman and warrior for his people and his cause.