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The Gettysburg Address

David Cowles

Nov 1, 2022

“After Lincoln, the legitimacy of government is an all or nothing proposition.”

In the US, Election Day 2022 is upon us. No better time to take a step back and reflect on the nature of government itself!


One of the best known speeches in US history, the Gettysburg Address, sets forth (perhaps unwittingly) criteria for the legitimacy of government, any government. Why? Do we really need criteria for the legitimacy of government? I was always taught that any government, to the extent that it governs, is ‘automatically’ legitimate. That same blind submission to authority is seen in many of our political notions:


  • He who has the gold rules.

  • Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

  • The Divine Right of Kings.


These are sophisticated versions of the ‘argument’ most of us were brought up with: “Because I said so!” Translation: I have the power to make it so, and so it is so, and so it is right that it is so. Bumper sticker: “Might Makes Right!” Billboard: “Power tends to exert itself; absolute power tends to exert itself absolutely.”


Yet, after the age of 11, at least, this argument is not always entirely persuasive. As often as folks (i.e., parents) have asserted the ‘legitimacy of power,' other folks (i.e., children) have challenged that claim. The Baby Boomers didn’t invent rebellion. There was life before 1960.


The legitimacy of political power has been perhaps the single most ubiquitous question in social science…for millennia. The Judo-Christian tradition, in its entirety, can be viewed through this lens. Start with Biblical history:


  • Lucifer rebels against God.

  • Adam and Eve challenge God’s legislative authority and executive power.  

  • Moses challenges Pharaoh.

  • Samuel challenges Monarchy per se.

  • Various prophets challenge various Kings.

  • And then there’s Jesus. He challenges pretty much everything. Jesus is the Bible’s version of Bart Simpson. For example:

    • (After running away from home at age 12): “Do you not know that I must be about my father’s business.”

    • (To his mother at Cana): “Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

    • (To Pontius Pilate): “You say that I am a King.”


Then fast-forward:


  • Scholasticism: Thomas Aquinas and the ‘theory of just law.'

  • The Enlightenment: John Locke, Handel’s Messiah, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Common Sense, Thomas Jefferson, The Federalist, Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

  • And then, Beyond Thunderdome: Anarchism, Marxism, The Confederacy.

  • And finally, the Aunts: Auntie-Colonialism, Auntie-Communism, Auntie-Fascism, Auntie-Imperialism.


Right up to today’s contested elections, the legitimacy of political power has always been a topic of contention: political power in general and specific expressions of that power. In the midst of this, Abraham Lincoln set forth the three criteria for political legitimacy:


“…that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”


  • Of the people (the consent of the governed): Those who are governed agree to be so governed. The Social Contact. Covenant.

  • By the people (democracy): The levers of government are operated directly by the people themselves (i.e, civil service) or by their representatives, democratically chosen from among their peers.  

  • For the people (the general welfare): The government legislates solely for the benefit of the people it governs, all the people, equally.


None of these criteria are new. What is new is the combination of all three into one, single uber-criterion. After Lincoln, the legitimacy of government is an all or nothing proposition. The Gettysburg Address is not a menu:


“For your dining pleasure, this evening our chef has prepared a prix fixe meal; shall I serve it?”  


Of course, as with all general statements of value, applying these criteria will always be a source of contention and even strife but, thanks to Lincoln, we now have a touchstone, a yardstick we can use to ‘measure’ any government’s claim to legitimacy.


Image: A newspaper reproduction of Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address. Credit: Library of Congress


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