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Camp Let­terman Field Hos­pital treated sol­diers from both the Union and the Con­fed­eracy in the months fol­lowing the battle of Get­tysburg.
Courtesy | Wiki­media Commons

American History should be judged by its cen­ter­piece, the Get­tysburg Address, said Susan Hanssen, an asso­ciate pro­fessor and department chair of history at the Uni­versity of Dallas, on March 30 at a talk entitled “The 1863 Project: Gettysburg.” 

Hanssen is the author of several works on G.K. Chesterton, the diplomacy of the John Adams family, and edu­cation. She was a con­tributor to The Federalist’s 1620 Project and the National Asso­ci­ation of Scholars’ Con­sti­tution Day dis­cussion of the New York Times’ 1619 project.

Now, she’s com­pleted a third project, which she pre­sented to a packed room of Hillsdale stu­dents and pro­fessors Tuesday. 

“My argument is that you don’t judge a civ­i­lization by its seeds or by its acorns,” Hanssen said. “You judge a civ­i­lization in its prime, and you should judge America in the fullness of time of 1863.”

Hanssen began by reciting the Get­tysburg Address and drawing a timeline of American history. Although it’s not a per­fectly chrono­logical divide, Hanssen said she places 1863 as “the middle of the middle” of American history. The year served as the turning point in both the Civil War and the history of the nation.

The 600,000 lives lost in the Civil War remain a central marker of American life, as no war before or after that time has been respon­sible for so many American casu­alties, Hanssen said.

Illus­trating the line, “four score and seven years ago,” Hanssen sketched the Lincoln Memorial on the white­board, noting that in the Get­tysburg Address, Pres­ident Abraham Lincoln looked back to the founding, and specif­i­cally to George Wash­ington, to reit­erate the meta­physical statement that “All men are created equal.”

“On the National Mall, there is a reflecting pond between the Wash­ington Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial,” Hanssen said. “If you stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you can see the Wash­ington Mon­ument, pointing forward, pointing towards the Lincoln Memorial, a kind of perfect sym­metry on the Wash­ington Mall.”

Hanssen gave a brief description of the war, explaining the impor­tance of the Battle of Gettysburg.

General Robert E. Lee wanted to win Get­tysburg to prove that the Con­fed­eracy was capable of winning land battles, Hanssen said. This would con­vince Britain, which relied on southern cotton, to assist the Con­fed­eracy with its naval power.

But in 1863, news arrived in London that Lee had lost Get­tysburg, and Vicksburg fell to Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant.

“The English didn’t rec­ognize imme­di­ately what had just hap­pened,” Hanssen said. “But the U.S. ambas­sador to Britain, Henry Adams, was working with the speed of history, and the news of 1863 made him realize that America was the new super­power and the British Empire had had its day.”

However, Lincoln’s Get­tysburg Address abstracts itself from the Civil War, Con­sti­tu­tional and moral ques­tions, and the lan­guage of North versus South, Hanssen said.

“Lincoln abstracts, so that his lan­guage becomes uni­versal in a way that enables his speech to be used repeatedly throughout American history when we are in need,” Hanssen said. “When Lincoln talks about ‘those who here gave their lives that that nation might live,’ it could apply to the beaches of Nor­mandy. It has become the cen­ter­piece of American history and American rhetoric, and it is about memory.”

Lincoln places lis­teners on a timeline and uses ref­er­ential pro­nouns to emphasize the word “here,” which he used eight times in the address, Hanssen said. “Here,” she said, brings attention to a people’s shared history and the sacred location of the cemetery.

“It is fitting and proper to die for your country, but it is a beau­tiful, noble thing to remember those who died for you,” Hanssen said.

Hanssen said the problem intro­duced in the address — that the living cannot ded­icate, con­se­crate, or hallow the ground — was solved by a small phrase Lincoln added at the last moment: “under God.”

“He pulls it out from memory,” Hanssen said. “It wasn’t in his notes, wasn’t in his first draft, but everybody heard him say it. It was telegraphed by all the jour­nalists back to every news­paper, whether it was the Houston Sun or the San Fran­cisco Sen­tinel or the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times.”

Lincoln bor­rowed this phrase from George Wash­ington, who used it as a verbal tic. Wash­ington added the phrase while reading the Dec­la­ration of Inde­pen­dence to his troops at Brooklyn Heights on July 4, 1776, Hanssen said.

“Prov­i­dence, thank God, does intervene in history, and works things to his pur­poses,” Hanssen said. “Not just people but nations have voca­tions, some­thing to carry out in the world.”

Junior Stephanie Soukup said she enjoyed the per­spective Hanssen offered.

“It was good to see someone from a school with similar prin­ciples, but in a very dif­ferent part of the country give their per­spective. There are other col­leges asking deep ques­tions of history and the liberal arts,” Soukup said. “We have an amazing history faculty, but it’s inter­esting to see another scholar who spe­cialized in this era, because a big part of history is having dif­ferent perspectives.”

Soukup said she liked that Hanssen empha­sized the Civil War as the first major test and ful­fillment of the founding principles.

“There are dif­ferent ways of dividing American history,” Soukup said. “It was inter­esting to con­sider how pre-Civil War America is still fig­uring itself out, but then the Civil War crys­tal­lizes and defines how America goes forward.”

Sophomore Carly Boerema said Hanssen’s argument helped her con­sider the rela­tionship America has with history.

“She pro­posed judging a nation by its telos, rather than by its origin,” Boerema said. “Just as it is important to observe a married couple after the test of time has proved the quality and strength of their love, it is important to look at the progress and devel­opment of a nation as time goes by and it faces tests of endurance and character.”