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The Abolitionist Behind the Gettysburg Address

President Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address. (Library of Congress/Getty Images)
President Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address. (Library of Congress/Getty Images)

(The Root) — In the Gettysburg Address, which Abraham Lincoln delivered 150 years ago this month, he declared that the Union fought to defend "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Americans soon claimed this phrase as the definitive description of their democracy and have celebrated it as such ever since.


Yet Lincoln did not actually use the word "democracy" in his speech, so how can we be sure he had democracy in mind when he spoke? The answer is, because we know he adopted and adapted the phrase from a definition of democracy coined by the Rev. Theodore Parker (1810-1860), a New England transcendentalist and abolitionist. Looking at why Lincoln did so sheds light on the meaning the most famous passage of the most famous speech in U.S. history.

Lincoln had a personal connection to Parker through Billy Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and political sidekick. Herndon thought Parker was the greatest thinker of the age, corresponded with him for years, met him twice and bought his books, which he reported showing to Lincoln. 


Parker popularized the argument that slavery should be abolished because it ran counter to the values of American democracy. This argument may seem obvious today but was not so then, when intellectuals distrusted democracy, equating it with mob rule. Parker, by contrast, celebrated democracy.

Yet he distinguished between what he called "Satanic democracy," characterized by selfish interest groups battling for power, and the form of democracy to which America should aspire, based on the idea that, in his words, "there is no permanent and real welfare for any one portion in Society except in connection with the welfare of all the rest of society." Parker defined this form of democracy as "government of all, by all, for all."

Scholars believe that Lincoln first encountered this formulation in one of Parker's writings from the 1850s, but they disagree over which one. My candidate is a Parker sermon from 1854, "The New Assault Upon Freedom in America." Here Parker denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed existing federal bans on slavery in the Western territories. The act outraged both Parker and Lincoln, who wanted the bans to remain. Lincoln almost certainly read the sermon, which was on a subject he cared deeply about, and which was reprinted in a volume of Parker's writings that Herndon is known to have shown him. 

In this sermon, Parker used his definition of democracy twice, both times prominently. First he described the American Revolution as a protest against four things: theocracy, which he defined as the subordination of the needs of the human soul to arbitrary theological claims about the authority of the Bible and church; monarchy, "the subordination of the mass of men to the few"; aristocracy, "the subordination of the many to the few"; and "despotocracy," the "subordination of the slave who toils to the master that enjoys." The Revolution, he asserted, was "the attempt to establish a Democracy, which … is the government of all, for all, by all."


Again, in the last paragraph of the sermon, where Lincoln could not have missed it, Parker predicted that once the people of the North stand up and "put slavery under our feet," then the "blessing of Almighty God will come down upon the noblest people the world ever saw — who have triumphed over Theocracy, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Despotocracy and have got a Democracy — a government of all, for all, and by all a Church without a Bishop, a State without a King, a Community without a Lord, and a Family without a Slave."

Lincoln may have quietly appreciated Parker's attack on "Theocracy." Like Parker, he was a skeptic about traditional Christian theology — although, unlike Parker, Lincoln kept his religious views private. But the concept of a "Family without a slave" would have struck Lincoln forcefully.


As he once remarked to a friend, he saw himself as having grown up a "slave" in his own family. His father had forced him to toil without pay and resisted his efforts to get educated. Lincoln remained bitter enough about this treatment that he later refused to visit his father when the old man lay dying or help pay for his headstone. Insofar as "government of all, by all, for all" meant "a family without a slave," then Lincoln would have been for it. "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master," Lincoln wrote in the late 1850s. "This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy." 

The secession crisis forced Lincoln to think even deeper about democracy. He was elected president in 1860 on a platform of barring slavery from the West; Southern states responded to his victory by declaring that they had left the Union. Throughout the winter of 1860-1861, political leaders urged Lincoln to renounce his election pledges in order to placate the South, but he refused. The secessionists, he argued, were illegally trying to overturn the outcome of the election, which he could not allow.


When the Civil War began, Lincoln named survival of democracy as the ultimate issue at stake. In his first message to Congress, in July 1861, he wrote that the Southern rebellion "presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law … can always … break up their Government …. [The rebellion] forces us to ask: … 'Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?' "

In the context of these concerns, Lincoln recalled Parker's description of democracy as "government of all, by all, for all." He decided, however, that he had to rework Parker's phrase. It evoked an ideal form of government to which the nation should aspire, while Lincoln was fighting to preserve the existing, legal government. Lincoln therefore replaced Parker's aspirational "all" with words from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, "the people." Lincoln's thinking had jelled by the time of his July 1861 message to Congress, when he referred to America, in the same sentence, as both "a constitutional republic" and "a democracy — a government of the people, by the same people."


Lincoln's revision of Parker's phrase, which he presented in final form at Gettysburg, epitomized his justification for the war. If the Southern states were allowed to leave, the body politic would be broken, and the government would cease to be "of the people." If the Southern minority were allowed to overturn the results of the 1860 election, the government would cease to be "by the people." If the government allowed slavery to expand and prosper, it would not be acting "for the people" (meaning, for their welfare).

Yet the aspirational quality of Parker's definition still infused Lincoln's version. By the time he spoke at Gettysburg, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Only with this "new birth of freedom," he now believed, would government of the people, by the people, for the people, not perish from the Earth.


Dean Grodzins, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Historical Society and a research associate at Harvard Business School. Follow him on Twitter.

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