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.”