Gettysburg Reflections

One hundred and fifty years ago today (I am writing on July 3, 2013) there occurred a pivotal moment in the collapse of the southern Confederacy’s military struggle to preserve and expand black chattel slavery in the United States. The two great armies of the North and South met in an epic three-day engagement in the southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. With 165,000 troops deployed, Gettysburg remains by far and away the single largest battle ever fought in North America. It ended in humiliation for the South, with the epic failure of “Pickett’s Charge “(involving a large march across an open field under withering Northern rifle and artillery fire) – Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee’s greatest blunder – on July 3rd. Lee retreated on the symbolically important date of July 4th. His army would never again set foot on northern soil. The three-day Gettysburg battle left more than 46,000 dead, wounded, or missing.


That the Nation Might Live and Popular Government Survive 

Addressing the question of why this monumental slaughter had occurred in his famous Gettysburg Address more than six months later, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln gave two reasons. The first was preservation of the Union: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation…can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” 

The second reason was to keep alive and rejuvenate, even remake, the principles of equality and democracy, or popular government: “Four score 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….It is for us the living…to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us….that we here highly resolve that that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

Did the Gettysburg dead perish in vain? Speaking of Lincoln’s first rationale – survival of the nation – there can be little doubt that the answer is a resounding “no, they did not.” More than merely surviving the Civil War intact, the United States went on to fulfill the wildest global dreams of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, accurately described by the distinguished American historian Eric Foner as “a self-conscious empire-builder”[1]. Within three decades of the Civil War’s end, the United States would emerge as a great player on the world imperial stage. Within four score years it stood as the post powerful nation in world history – a status it retains to this day though no longer on the scale it enjoyed in the wake of its hideous thermonuclear holocausts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


The New Gilded Age 

On Lincoln’s second score – the preservation of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” – it’s a rather different story. There have been, it is true, remarkable surges and waves of popular engagement and power in American history since the Civil War: Radical Reconstruction in the post Civil War South, the Progressive Age, and the long New Deal era (1932-1970s), including the industrial workers movement of the 1930s and 1940s and the remarkable many-sided Civil rights and democracy awakening of the 1960s and early 1970s. But none of these waves or surges has ever dislodged the underlying disproportionate and undemocratic power of the wealthy capitalist few who have controlled the lion’s share of the nation’s productive economic resources and shaped the nation’s politics and policies in accord with their selfish interests and with U.S. founder John Jay’s dictum that “those who own the country ought to run it.” Writing at the height of the Progressive Age, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics [was] the shadow cast on society by big business.”It would stay that way, Dewey prophesized, as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”[2] 

Dewey’s prediction has been born out, to say the least. Each progressive reform wave has been followed by a sharp upward distribution of wealth and power, from the first Gilded Age of the late 19th century (the time of Robber Baron industrialists and financers like John Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan) to the corporatist “roaring 1920s” and the current neoliberal Second or New Gilded Age (1979 to resent). Currently, reflecting more than three decades of savage, deliberately policy-generated upward distribution of resources, the own Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2009), the survey data illustrating these and other progressive majority views imply “an astonishing level of public support for what would have to be a very radical program of social transformation,” including the outlawing of inherited wealth and of social and economic advantages based on race, gender, ethnicity, and intelligence [7]





By now, Chomsky observes:



An Age of Corporations and Masters 

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial reflecting on the legacy of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s subsequent famous battlefield address, historian Allen C. Guelzo argues that “The age of plantations and masters has passed away, helped in no small measure by the people who rallied to Lincoln’s challenge….Not hierarchy, but bureaucracy, has become the new agent” of top-down authoritarianism, Guelzo feels. [17] With all due respect for Americans’ venerable opposition to red-tape and officialdom, that is a profoundly idiotic formulation in an era when 400 Americans possess as much wealth as the bottom half of the populace and when the rich’s giant corporations and financial institutions drive politics and policy in deadly authoritarian defiance of majority opinion and the democratic political tradition that was so eloquently articulated by Abraham Lincoln in November of 1863. If Lincoln were alive today, he would sense and denounce an American (and indeed global) age of corporations and masters (or corporate masters) – one that violated his own republican “free labor ideology” (Foner’s excellent term for the pre-Civil War world view of the once progressive-and-even radical-for-its-time Republican Party [18]) as well as his sense of government of, by, and for the people. As a dissenter from the expansionist Manifest Destiny nationalism of many U.S. politicians of the time [19], he would also, I suspect, draw some key connections between American inequality and American empire at home and abroad.  

Paul Street is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). 


Selected Endnotes 

  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), 102. 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York; New Press, 1916). 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Truth-0-Meter, “Michael Moore Says 400 Americans Have More Wealth Than Half of All Americans Combined,” (March 2011), Journal-Sentinet PolitiFact Wisconsin,  http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/mar/10/michael-moore/michael-moore-says-400-americans-have-more-wealth-/ (accessed December 18, 2012). 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Nicholas Kristof, “America’s Primal Scream,” New York Times, October 15, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-americas-primal-scream.html?_r=0; Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, “Building a Better America One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2010. 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Tampa Bay Times, “Bernie Sanders Says Walmart Heirs Own More Wealth Than Bottom 40 Percent of Americans,” PolitiFact.com (July 31, 2012), http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/jul/31/bernie-s/sanders-says-walmart-heirs-own-more-wealth-bottom-/ 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Quoted on the Web site of Brandeis University at http://www.brandeis.edu/legacyfund/bio.html and in Harvard Magazine (March 2011) at http://harvardmagazine.com/2011/03/quotable-harvard. The original source in the latter is Labor, October 14, 1941. 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009),
  2. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006,), 225. 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Noam Chomsky, “America in Decline,” New York Times Syndicate, August 5, 2011, reproduced in Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 287 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>J. Miljin Cha, “Why is Washington Reducing the Deficit Instead of Creating Jobs?” Demos (December 7, 2012), http://www.demos.org/publication/why-washington-reducing-deficit-instead-creating-jobs
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”> Cha, “Why is Washington Reducing the Deficit.” 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Lydia Saad, “Americans Back Obama’s Proposals to Address Gun Violence,” Gallup Politics (January 23, 2013), http://www.gallup.com/poll/160085/americans-back-obama-proposals-address-gun-violence.aspx; Frank Newport, “Americans Wanted Gun Background Checks to Pass Senate,” Gallup Politics (April 29, 2013), http://www.gallup.com/poll/162083/americans-wanted-gun-background-checks-pass-senate.aspx; Sabrina Saddiqui, “Assault Weapons Ban, High Capacity Magazine Measures Fail in Senate,” Huffington Post (April 17, 2013), www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/17/assault-weapons-ban_n_3103120.html 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>A more accurate term than “deficit hawks” when it comes to describing the powerful Washington lobbying and propaganda complex that purports to be obsessed with the federal deficit. The complex has never been serious about slashing the deficit, as is clear from its longstanding attachment to cutting government revenues b slashing taxes for the wealthy few. As Krugman observes, “recent events have…demonstrated what was already apparent to careful observers: the deficit-scold movement was never really about deficits. It was about using deficit fears to shred the social safety net.” Paul Krugman, “Hawks and Hypocrites,” New York Times, November 12, 2012, A29. 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Allen C. Guelzo, “Gettysburg and the Eternal Battle for a ‘New birth of Freedom,’” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2013, A15. 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 [1970]. 
  1. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Foner, Fiery Trial, 102. 

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