Boston College Expert: Lincoln & Gettysburg
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Heather Cox Richardson
Professor of History
Heather Cox Richardson is an expert in nineteenth-century America, specializing in politics and economics. Her first four books explored the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the American West, and stretched from the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln to that of Theodore Roosevelt. Her The Death of Reconstruction (2001), Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre (2010), and West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War (2007) were all selections of the History Book Club; West from Appomattox was also an Editor’s Choice selection of the New York Times Book Review. Her To Make Men Free, a history of the Republican Party from 1854 to the present, is forthcoming in 2014. She is also the author of: The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War. Richardson is president of The Historical Society, an organization designed to bring academic history to general readers. She has contributed blogs to Bloomberg, BBC, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Huffington Post; her blogs for The Historical Society won the Cliopatria Award.
Political courage, strength of conviction, and a commitment to equality – some of the traits that were on display 150 years ago when President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, a speech short on words but long on substance and political promise.
“Rededication of a government to the little guy, as opposed to the wealthy slave owners, was really what the Civil War was about, and I think that’s a really important concept to keep in mind,” says Boston College History Professor and Civil War expert Heather Cox Richardson, PhD. “Those questions are still very much in play today when we talk about disenfranchising people. In a number of states there are issues about disenfranchising people - poorer people, people of color, older people, college students – there’s much debate about who should have a say in American society and American government and Lincoln had a very clear answer.”
That answer was on full display November 19, 1893, in Gettysburg, PA when Lincoln came to dedicate a national cemetery where the 7,000 men had been killed months earlier in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
“It’s an incredibly important speech because with it, what Lincoln does is he re-dedicates the Union, but also the nation to the equalities promised in the Declaration of Independence and which had not been put in place for the Constitution,” says Professor Richardson, author of the book, The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. “Lincoln is saying that even though slavery is protected by the Constitution, that’s not what America is really about. America is really about the Declaration of Independence which rests of the idea that all men are created equal which means slavery can never happen which is how we get the 13th Amendment. It’s a beautiful moment and he takes a ton of heat for it, not only in the South, but the North as well.”
Richardson says while the perception may be that this speech came out of nowhere, that’s hardly the case; Lincoln worked behind the scenes galvanizing support before making his historic declaration.
“There’s this image sometimes that Lincoln sort of came down from the mountains and said, ‘Now we’re going to have equality.’ Absolutely not,” says Richardson, who has contributed blogs to Bloomberg, the BBC, and The Washington Post among others. “He put a whole bunch of people together, got people behind him, lots of political wheeling and dealing to keep people behind the Gettysburg Address, and the idea of equality. The speech says Lincoln believes that America is a new kind of government, that a belief in human equality is a new idea and he’s the guy who puts it into play for the first time since the Declaration of Independence. The idea was that America stood for an idea and an ideal and every American – whether he was just off the boat from China or had come before the puritans – every American had a stake in every other American, and we were all supposed to work together to promote human equality and equality of opportunity.“
Professor Richardson says that conviction to what’s right and not what’s popular is something today’s politicians, and their constituents, should pay more attention to.
“It’s important that when people make decisions about who gets elected to office, how they are manipulating different law, different pieces of legislation, different tax codes, different entitlement, that fundamentally there’s a question about what we stand for,” says Professor Richardson. “Do we stand for human equality? Do we stand for everyone having a say in American society or do we stand for the protection of property? Lincoln had a very clear answer to that.
“The other important factor is the way you look at politics. Is politics about helping your guys, the guys that put the money in the coffers, or is it about trying to do the best for everybody?” asks Professor Richardson. “You can no longer win office in America without having a huge war chest, so you have to make the very wealthy people happy otherwise you can’t get elected. So there’s kind of a chicken and egg thing going on but it’s a very dangerous thing for a country if you have your legislators not doing what’s best for everybody.“
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