Thursday, July 4, 2013

Persecution of Christians: American Foreign Policy Will Have to Respond. By Walter Russell Mead.

Persecution of Christians: American Foreign Policy Will Have to Respond. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, July 4, 2013.


Americans like to think that modernization and economic progress make religious and ethnic tensions fade away. That may be true in the long run, but often the stressful social and political changes associated with rapid economic development make intercommunal tensions worse. It was only after the Industrial Revolution was well under way, for example, that waves of nationalism and ethnic hate flamed across Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.
India is an even more complicated and diverse country than the United States, and Indian society is passing through some revolutionary changes. Both Indian and US governments will have to think carefully about how religious tensions inside India can be kept from complicating a bilateral relationship of the greatest importance to both.
To some, it will seem odd and anachronistic that 21st century American diplomats will be dealing with issues of religious persecution. But history grinds on, and humanity’s religious and tribal affiliations don’t seem to be fading away.

The Age of Indiscretion. By Daniel Henninger.

The Age of Indiscretion. By Daniel Henninger. Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2012.

Egypt Continued, or Interrupted (Depending on Your Point of View). By Adam Garfinkle.

Egypt Continued, or Interrupted (Depending on Your Point of View). By Adam Garfinkle. The American Interest, July 4, 2013.

Mohammed Morsi’s Failed Presidency.

Witnessing a Coup in Egypt. By Eric Trager. Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2013.

Still Wrong About Egypt—and Wrong About the World. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, July 4, 2013.

Everybody Loses in Egypt. By Marc Lynch. Foreign Policy, July 3, 2013.

Egypt’s Islamists Turn Violent After Morsy’s Fall. By David Kenner. Foreign Policy, July 4, 2013.

Where Does the Muslim Brotherhood Go From Here? By Nathan Brown. The New Republic, July 3, 2013.

An Independence Day for Egypt's Secularists? By Michael Hirsh. The Atlantic, July 3, 2013.


It is not at all clear that Egypt is in the midst of a transition to democracy. It is in the midst of a crisis of authority and has been wallowing for some time in a damaging crisis of governance, but is Egypt really in a transition to democracy? And is democracy really what “ordinary” Egyptians want?
Right now one suspects that most Egyptians fear that the country could be in a transition to anarchy, and that what ordinary Egyptians (who are extremely poor by US standards and earn their bread by the sweat of their brow with very little cushion against illness or a bad day at the market) want most of all right now is security. They aren’t fretting so much about when they will have a government more like Norway’s as they are terrified that their country is sliding in the direction of Libya, Syria or Iraq.
As is often the case, Washington policymakers seem to be paying too much attention to the glibbest of political scientists and the vaporings of the Davoisie. Egypt has none of the signs that would lead historians to think democracy is just around the corner. Mubarak was not Franco, and Egypt is not Spain. What’s happening in Egypt isn’t the robust flowering of a civil society so dynamic and so democratic that it can no longer be held back by dictatorial power.
Virtually every policeman and government official in the country takes bribes. Most journalists have lied for pay or worked comfortably within the confines of a heavily censored press all their careers. The Interior Ministry has files, often stuffed with incriminating or humiliating information about most of the political class. The legal system bowed like a reed before the wind of the Mubarak government’s will, and nothing about the character of its members has changed. The business class serves the political powers; the Copts by and large will bow to the will of any authority willing to protect them.
And Americans should not deceive themselves. While some of Morsi’s failure was the result of overreaching and dumb choices on his part, he faced a capital strike and an intense campaign of passive resistance by a government and business establishment backed by an army in bed with both groups. Their strategy was to bring Morsi down by sabotaging the economy, frustrating his policies and isolating his appointees. Although Egypt’s liberals supported the effort out of fear of the Islamists, the strategy had nothing to do with a transition to democracy, and it worked.
This is not to say that Morsi or his movement had a viable alternative policy or governance model for Egypt. They didn’t. The Muslim Brotherhood had no clue how Egypt could be governed, and a combination of incompetence, corruption, factionalism and religious dogmatism began to wreck Morsi’s government from Day One.
If American policy toward Egypt is based on the assumption that Egypt is having a “messy transition” to democracy and that we must shepherd the poor dears to the broad sunny uplands, encouraging when they do well, chiding when they misstep, Washington will keep looking foolish and our influence will continue to fade. If that is the approach our foolishness compels us to take, look for more cases in which American good intentions just make us more hated—not because we are wicked, but because we are clueless.
The White House needs to purge all short or even medium term thoughts of promoting Egypt’s transition to democracy. There aren’t enough “good guys” in Egypt to Americanize or even to Malaysianize the place. Democracy in Egypt right now is an “if we had some eggs we could have some ham and eggs—if we had some ham” kind of dream. Our first goal must be to help prevent Egypt’s descent into starvation, misery, anarchy and despair.
We can’t take for granted that we or they will succeed in this; Egypt’s economic problems are pressing. It’s likely that the non-coup will lure some Egyptian money back into the country, but if violence continues and Islamist terrorists foment disorder and attack, for example, tourists, bad things can happen fast. Egypt is much closer to being a basket case than it is to becoming a democracy.
Less study of the fine print of the Egyptian constitution, more concern about a strategically important country headed over Niagara Falls in a bucket, please.
Beyond that, we need a fundamental rethink of our approach to the promotion of democracy abroad. It is neither racist nor orientalist nor any other ugly thing to say that different societies around the world are at different degrees of readiness for the rise of genuine democratic institutions. Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are not going to be building modern states anytime soon, much less democratic ones. China seems closer to building a stable and working democracy than Egypt is, and the obstacles facing democracy in China are immense and intimidating.
Many people who came of age politically in the late 1980s and 1990s have a warped sense of history. They lived at a time of rapid democratic advance: East Asia, Latin America, South Africa and above all Central and Eastern Europe hosted a galaxy of new democratic stars. One belief uniting the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama is that this democratic revolution would irresistibly sweep the rest of the world.
But it didn’t and it won’t, at least not anytime soon. The low hanging fruit has been picked; the fruit higher up in the tree isn’t ripe, or has been pecked by the birds. In many places, the “irresistible tide” has rolled back. In others, the clear streams of liberal revolution have been polluted and fouled by ethnic and religious hate.
This doesn’t mean our work is done or that we must despair of democracy’s future. But it does mean we need to shift strategy. Less money for sock-puppet NGOs whose leaders obligingly tell us everything we want to hear, and more, for example, to help Egypt reform and develop an educational system that could give future generations a chance. I will be writing about democracy promotion in a difficult time; America is not and never will be a purely realist power and our foreign engagement can and must respond to great moral and political truths.
But if George W. Bush’s failures at democracy promotion in the Arab world weren’t enough of a lesson, surely Barack Obama’s failures should bring home the reality that our whole approach to this region needs some deeper, wiser, and more practical ideas.

The Father of Waters Flows Unvexed to the Sea. By Walter Russell Mead.

The Father of Waters Flows Unvexed to the Sea. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, July 4, 2013.


150 years ago on the Fourth of July, the Siege of Vicksburg ended in a glorious American victory, and the secessionists lost their last bastion on the Mississippi River. With the Army of Northern Virginia also being beaten back from the ridges and hilltops of Gettysburg, July 4, 1863, was the day when Dixie started its fall.
I am a son of the South and grew up steeped in its legends, its loyalties and its lore. I am proud of the courage my slaveholding ancestors displayed, though sad that such courage was devoted to so sorry a cause. I am deeply grateful to Abraham Lincoln for doing what my ancestors could not do on their own: freeing their slaves from the curse of bondage and freeing my family from the curse of slave owning.
The Civil War was a war of liberation, not a war of conquest or aggression. That terrible war began the liberation of the white south as well as the black south, and more and more southern whites have come to understand that as the generations have passed.
Some of my first political memories date from the centennial of the Civil War, when the Civil Rights movement was reaching its climax and the post-Reconstruction settlement of southern politics was going down to the same ruin that the slaveholding south faced in 1865. My family like many other families was bitterly divided by that movement, a fading echo of the bitterness of the Civil War itself.
It was fitting that Vicksburg fell on July 4; it was fitting that the great Civil Rights bills were passed during the Civil War’s centennial — and it is fitting that America observes the 150th anniversary of the war under the leadership of an African American president. I don’t like all the decisions our President makes, but I would not want to live in a country where a person of color was barred, formally or informally, from holding the highest office in the land.
For many generations, the feelings of many white southerners about July 4, 1776 were shadowed by their feelings about April 1865 when they ‘drove old Dixie down’. Lots of people knew the words to “Good Old Rebel”:
I hates the yankee nation, and everything they do
I hates the declaration of independence, too;
I hates the glorious union, tis drippin’ with our blood;
I hates striped banner, I fit it all I could.
Southern whites weren’t and aren’t the only people with a complicated relationship to our national history, of course. The feelings of many black southerners about 1776 were and are also clouded: by 90 years of slavery and another 90 years of cruel discrimination and race rule. Healing is slow; that is the nature of deep wounds.
The fall of Vicksburg was a step towards the fulfillment of the promises made in Philadelphia. 150 years later, we should remember, gratefully, this glorious day in the annals of our nation, and spare a moment from our celebrations to remember the brave men who gave their lives so that the promise of the Revolution would not be lost.
Michael Beschloss has posted a photograph of a Union fortification outside Vicksburg, taken soon after the city’s fall. Take a look, and remember that July 4 was only the beginning of a very long and complicated story that is still unfolding in our time.

George III and the American Revolution. By Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.

“If Others Will Not Be Active, I Must Drive”: George III and the American Revolution. By Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy. Early American Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 2004).

Despite John Kerry’s Efforts, Poll Shows Both Israelis and Palestinians are Pessimistic about Prospects for Peace.

Despite the launching of the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to renew the peace process and the modification introduced to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) accepting minor territorial swaps, both sides display pessimism regarding the peace process and Israeli support for the API drops. Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, July 2, 2013.


Israelis and Palestinians continue to display pessimism regarding the peace process despite efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to renew the peace process and despite modification introduced to the Arab Peace Initiative: Only 27% of the Palestinians and 10% of the Israelis think that the two sides will return to negotiations and violence will stop while 34% of the Israelis and 31% of the Palestinians believe that negotiations will resume but some armed attacks will continue as well. On the other hand,  44% of the Israelis and 15% of the Palestinians think that the two sides will not return to negotiations and armed attacks will not stop and 21% of the Palestinians believe that the two sides will not return to negotiations but that violence will not resume.
Furthermore, findings indicate that each side perceives the other side as constituting a threat to its very existence: 57% of Palestinians think that Israel’s goals in the long run are to extend its borders to cover all the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expel its Arab citizens, and 25% think the goals are to annex the West Bank while denying political rights to the Palestinians. 37% of the Israelis think that the Palestinian aspirations in the long run are to conquer the State of Israel and destroy much of the Jewish population in Israel; 17% think the goals of the Palestinians are to conquer the State of Israel.

The Fall of the American Worker. By George Packer.

The Fall of the American Worker. By George Packer. The New Yorker, July 2, 2013.

Red, Divided and Blue Fly This Independence Day. By Ron Brownstein.

Red, Divided and Blue Fly This Independence Day. By Ronald Brownstein. National Journal, July 3, 2013.


It seems entirely revealing, if dispiriting, that the days before the July Fourth holiday showed Red America and Blue America pulling apart at an accelerating rate.
Of all of our national holidays, Independence Day is the one most intimately rooted in our common history and shared experience. Yet this year it arrives against a background of polarization, separation, and confrontation in the states and Washington alike. With municipal politics as the occasional exception, the pattern of solidifying agreement within the parties—and widening disagreement between them—is dominating our decisions at every level.
On almost all of our major policy choices, the common thread is that the election of 2012 did not “break the fever” of polarization, as President Obama once hoped it might. Last November, Obama became only the third Democrat in the party’s history to win a majority of the popular vote twice. But congressional Republicans, preponderantly representing the minority that voted against Obama, have conceded almost nothing to his majority—leaving the two sides at a stalemate. Meanwhile, beyond the Beltway, states that lean Democratic and those that lean Republican are separating at a frenetic pace.
Consider a few recent headlines. The Supreme Court decision upholding the lower-court invalidation of California's Proposition 8 restored gay marriage in the nation’s largest state. It also capped a remarkable 2013 march for gay marriage through blue states, including Delaware, Minnesota, and Rhode Island (with Illinois and New Jersey possibly joining before long). The consensus is solidifying fast enough that 2014 could see several blue-state Republican gubernatorial candidates running on accepting gay-marriage statutes as settled law. Former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a likely 2014 GOP gubernatorial contender who this week reversed his earlier opposition to support gay marriage, may be an early straw in that breeze.
The story in red states, though, remains very different. Almost all of them have banned gay marriage. Some activists believe Justice Anthony Kennedy’s embrace of equal-protection arguments in the decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act might enable litigation challenging those bans; but if not, it may take a very long time for the support for gay marriage among younger voters to dissolve the resistance to the idea in culturally conservative states. Absent further Supreme Court action, the nation could remain a “house divided” on gay marriage for longer than many may expect: The high court’s ruling striking down the remaining 16 state laws banning interracial marriage came in 1967—nearly two centuries after the first state had revoked its ban (Pennsylvania in 1780).
Meanwhile, as gay marriage advances in blue states, red states are competing to impose the tightest restrictions on abortion since the Supreme Court established the national right to it in Roe v. Wade. In Ohio this week, Republican Gov. John Kasich signed legislation requiring ultrasound exams before abortions, effectively cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood and making it more difficult for abortion providers to transfer patients to public hospitals. In Texas, after the dramatic filibuster by Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis temporarily disrupted his plans, Republican Gov. Rick Perry this week opened another legislative special session that is likely to ban abortion at 20 weeks and impose stringent new safety requirements that would shutter most of the state’s abortion providers. All of this follows a cascade of legislation restricting abortion in Republican-run states from Arkansas and Louisiana to Kansas and North Dakota—most of which are already facing legal challenges.
In Washington, there’s little sign of convergence. Hopes for a budget “grand bargain” are flickering. In the Senate, the two parties have worked together to pass a farm bill, and more dramatically a sweeping immigration overhaul that won support from all 54 Democrats and 14 Republicans. But House Republicans, who recently collapsed into chaos when they couldn’t pass a farm bill, are pledging to block any reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants—an indispensable component of legislation as far as Democrats are concerned. On big issues, the Supreme Court looks just as chronically divided, and the split often comes down to Republican- and Democratic-appointed justices.
All of this reveals a political system losing its capacity to create common ground between party coalitions divided along economic, racial, generational, and even religious lines. Some variation in state policy is healthy, but states are now diverging to an extent that threatens to undermine equal protection under the law. The stalemate in Congress reflects genuine differences, but the reluctance to compromise—most intractable among House Republicans—prevents us from confronting common challenges.
In all these ways, our contemporary politics is ignoring the simple truth that none of us are going away—not the cosmopolitan coasts, nor the evangelical South. Our choices ultimately come down to bridging our differences or surrendering to endemic separation in the states and stalemate in Washington. This week we celebrate the moment when the authors of the Declaration of Independence concluded they had no choice but “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” It’s an excellent opportunity to consider how ominously our own “political bands” are fraying.

The Writing of a Great Address. By Peggy Noonan.

Cemetery Ridge at sunset. This monument overlooking the valley of Pickett’s Charge, represents Union soldiers using their rifles as clubs after running out of bullets. John Ferebee.

The Writing of a Great Address. By Peggy Noonan. Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2013.

Lincoln began forming his thoughts just after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg and the Eternal Battle for a “New Birth of Freedom.” By Allen C. Guelzo. Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2013.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. By John G. Nicolay. The Century, February 1894. Also here and here.

Address of Hon. Edward Everett, at the consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, 19th November, 1863 : with the dedicatory speech of President Lincoln, and the other exercises of the occasion. By Edward Everett et al. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1864.

Response to a Serenade, July 7, 1863. By Abraham Lincoln. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. A preview of the Gettysburg Address.


The air is full of the Battle of Gettysburg, whose 150th anniversary this week marked. Those who love history are thinking about Little Round Top and Devil’s Den, Culp’s Hill and the Peach Orchard, and all the valor and mistakes of men at war. The mystery of them, too. How did Joshua Chamberlain, a bookish young professor of rhetoric from Maine, turn into a steely-eyed warrior of the most extraordinary grit and guts at the exact moment those qualities were most needed? He was a living hinge of history. Why did Robert E. Lee, that military master who always knew when not to push it too far, push it too far and order Pickett to charge that open field?
At Gettysburg, great deeds were followed by great words. The battle won the war—it was the turning point—and a speech named the war’s meaning. We will mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address this fall.
What do we know of its writing? Still pretty much what John Nicolay told us in 1894, 31 years later. In an essay in The Century, a quarterly, Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s two private secretaries, sought to put to rest some myths.
On Nov. 19, 1863, President Lincoln would speak at the dedication of the new national cemetery. He had been invited just over two weeks before, so he wouldn’t have long to prepare his remarks. And he was busy with other things—a report to Congress, the day-to-day of the war.
“There is no record of when Mr. Lincoln wrote the first sentences of his proposed address,” wrote Nicolay. “He probably followed his usual habit in such matters, using great deliberation in arranging his thoughts, and molding his phrases mentally, waiting to reduce them to writing until they had taken satisfactory form.”
This is a somewhat unusual way to write an important document. It’s how Samuel Johnson often wrote his essays, getting it right in his head and then committing it, almost fully formed, to paper. From my observation, writers of speeches tend to jot down thoughts, ideas and bits of language and then compose, draft after draft, from the notes. I asked a friend, a writer and artist, if he knew of another writer who wrote as Lincoln and Johnson did. “No, but I know of a great composer who seems to have done exactly that—Mozart.”
Lincoln travelled to Gettysburg by train, arriving near sundown the night before the speech. In his pocket, not his hat, he carried an almost-finished draft, written in ink on Executive Office stationery. He didn’t write any of the speech on the trip—there was too much bustle around him, and the train jerked too much.
That night in Gettysburg, Lincoln stayed in the home of David Wills, a local “eminento” who’d pushed the idea of the national cemetery and helped buy the land. The little town was overrun with visitors. A crowd gathered at Wills’s house and called out to Lincoln to speak.
Here we see a nice moment of the egalitarianism and lack of reverence with which 19th-century Americans approached their presidents.
Lincoln came out and said: “I appear before you . . . merely to thank you for the compliment.” He would not deliver a speech for “several substantial reasons.” One is that he didn’t have one. “In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things,” he added.
“If you can help it,” shot a voice from the crowd.
Lincoln said the only way to help it was to say “nothing at all.”
The next morning, Nicolay joined Lincoln upstairs and stayed for about an hour as the president, with lead pencil, finished the speech.
Days before, Lincoln had told the reporter Noah Brooks that the address would be “short, short, short.” He wasn’t the main speaker of the day; that was the famous orator Edward Everett, who spoke at noon, for two hours.
From Lincoln the crowd expected something quick, maybe pithy, possibly perfunctory. “They were therefore totally unprepared for what they heard,” Nicolay recalled, “and could not immediately realize that his words, and not those of the carefully selected orator, were to carry the concentrated thought of the occasion like a trumpet-peal to furthest posterity.”
Nicolay sat a few feet from Lincoln. “It is the distinct recollection of the writer . . . that he did not read from the written pages,” that there was nothing “mechanical” in his delivery. He spoke instead from “the fullness and conciseness of thought and memory.”
In the end there were three versions of the speech, all the same in meaning but with small stylistic differences.
There was the draft Lincoln wrote in Washington and finished in Gettysburg. There is the version taken down in shorthand by an Associated Press reporter as the president spoke—this would be telegraphed across the country and splashed on the next morning’s front pages. And there is the revised copy Lincoln made after his return to the White House. He compared his original draft with the version in”the newspapers and included “his own recollections of the exact form in which he delivered" the speech. That draft is now the official, agreed-upon text.
More from Allen Guelzo’s new “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” a sweeping and meticulous recounting of the battle that never loses sight of its essentials. Mr. Guelzo, in an epilogue, says something about the Gettysburg Address I’d not seen noted in a life reading Lincoln.
It turns out Lincoln gave a kind of preview of the address only three days after the battle had ended. It was July 7. Word had reached the War Department of another Union triumph, on July 4, at Vicksburg, Miss. This greatly cheered a glum Lincoln, who'd been grieving Gen. George Meade’s decision not to follow and crush Lee’s forces as they retreated from Pennsylvania. What happened at Vicksburg underscored the momentum toward victory. Lincoln called the news “great. . . . It is great!”
Word swept through Washington. A crowd marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and called for a speech.
Lincoln improvised from a second-floor window. Actually he rambled, but you can see where even then he was going. Guelzo puts Lincoln’s remarks in italics: “How long ago is it? . . . eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’” The victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he said, had put the opponents of that truth on the run.
This, Lincoln said, was “a glorious theme,” but he was not prepared, at that moment, to do it justice.
He would, however, in the next two weeks, as he thought, and formulated, and decided exactly how he wanted to say what he wanted to say.
“How long ago is it—eighty odd years?’ would become, “Four score and seven years ago.” Less dry and numeric, that. Almost biblical, as if the events of 1776 were epochal in the history of man.
Which is what he thought.
And he was right.
Happy 237th Independence Day to America, the great and fabled nation that is still, this day, the hope of the world.


Among my great-grandfather’s papers, carefully set down in his small, gnarled handwriting, is a copy of the Gettysburg Address. When Lincoln delivered the speech, my great-grandfather was 10 years old and living in Sweden, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. That inconvenient birth exposed him to the haphazardness of privilege—for although he was raised, petted and groomed by his father’s family, he soon understood that he would never have any real standing in that family or their world.

Over their protests, he left Sweden in his 20s, arriving penniless in New York in 1879 but still in possession of the American president’s words, the promise of a new nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, where no one—not even a baron's bastard—was obliged to remove his cap when his betters rode by.

For John Anderson (the name he assumed when he moved to Philadelphia in the 1880s), the Gettysburg Address was the title-deed to his new world. Little did he realize how very narrowly that deed had come to being lost.

The Civil War was in its third year when Abraham Lincoln was invited to deliver his “few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. For most of those three years, the war had not gone well for the Union he had been elected to lead as president. A breakaway Confederacy of 11 Southern states had seceded, playing on their declared right to self-determination and fighting off every effort by Union forces to subdue their uprising.

Lincoln understood that their appeal to self-determination was dubious at best. The self-determination the Confederate states desired was the freedom to protect the legalized slavery of 3.9 million black people, purely on the basis of their race, in defiance of what the Declaration of Independence had to say about equality.

And having taken that step away from equality, the Confederacy had kept moving further and further away until its entire life came to resemble a European aristocracy. The Confederacy established an internal passport system for all persons, levied a steeply graduated income tax, appropriated private property for military use, and nationalized Southern industries—iron-making, clothing for military uniforms and even railroads. Even among whites, a disdainful hierarchy of thousand-bale cotton planters and poor white sandhillers emerged.

“The admiration for monarchical institutions on the English model, for privileged classes, and for a landed aristocracy and gentry, is undisguised and apparently genuine,” marveled the British journalist William Howard Russell in 1861. King Leopold I of Belgium, in 1863, hoped that the Civil War would “raise a barrier against the United States and provide a support for the monarchical-aristocratic principle in the Southern states.”

No wonder, then, that Lincoln exulted when the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee met with a climactic defeat by Union forces at the small Pennsylvania crossroads town of Gettysburg in July 1863. In Lincoln’s mind, there was a symbolic coincidence in receiving the news of the Gettysburg victory on the Fourth of July. It was, he told a crowd of well-wishers in Washington, as though a bright line had been drawn between “the first time” in 1776 that “a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self evident truth that all men are created equal,” and 1863, when “the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal” had “turned tail” and run.

When the invitation came to dedicate the Gettysburg cemetery in November, Lincoln painstakingly drafted a deeply compressed statement of what he understood the battle, and the Civil War as a whole, to be about. He began with a quasi-biblical flourish: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Civil War had assumed the form of a test, whether "that nation or any nation so conceived or so dedicated can long endure." But could it?

The problem—as those Southern aristocrats would have been quick to point out—was that democracy also injected an element of instability into society. If the humblest man had equal access to participating in government, what myriad kinds of chaos were likely to result from a government composed of “equals”—of shopkeepers, schoolteachers, farmers or mechanics—rather than by those who had been bred from their cradles to rule the land? The answer was argument, dissension and civil war, which is why the South’s secession so delighted its aristocrats.

Gettysburg provided the most eloquent refutation of their world view. The soldiers who died on the battleground to preserve the Union had been exactly those dull, commonplace boors the aristocrats disdained.

The real question Lincoln wanted to pose in his address was whether the American people were still willing, as had been the “honored dead,” to devote themselves to “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” On that hung the issue, not just of slavery, but of democracy itself. If Americans could so rise, Lincoln said, then the nation could experience a political version of a revival—a “new birth of freedom”—and the government of the people so despised in every European palace “shall not perish from the earth.”

The age of plantations and masters has passed away, helped in no small measure by the people who rallied to Lincoln’s challenge. But the perverse suspicion that the people understand too little to determine their own fate has by no means disappeared. And if it no longer marches in epaulets and cocked hats, it still speaks in the accents of efficiency and centralization. Not hierarchy, but bureaucracy, has become the new agent for imposing stability and “fairness” handed down from on high.

The Battle of Gettysburg ended 150 years ago. But the democratic principle it was fought for still requires defending. And in the long view, its best defense may be the 272 words Lincoln uttered at Gettysburg. My great-grandfather seems to have thought so, and so do I.