Lincoln also explained to his listeners that the Civil War was being fought to prove that, in the United States, “all men are created equal.”
That line seems so obvious to modern ears that it’s easy to overlook it. The fight for “equality” has been won so completely that today the concept mostly comes up when a boy wants to be allowed to use the girl’s bathroom. Otherwise, our arguments over inequality tend to focus on how racial preferences should be allocated, or for how long.
But, to insist that all men were created equal meant much more in 1863, when millions of men (and women) were still considered property, to be bought and sold by others. The war would put an end to this, Lincoln was saying, and thus complete the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
The crowd in attendance would also have understood that Lincoln was talking about putting an end to American aristocracy. In the southern United States before the war, there was a slave-owning class that was remarkably similar to Europe’s blue bloods.
This small group of people owned much of the land, but didn’t work on it themselves. Instead they owned slaves to do that. The middle-class farmers and shopkeepers of the Union, gathered at Gettysburg, would have understood that, if all men were truly equal, this aristocracy would need to vanish. Instead of a society based on land ownership, with title and power passed from one generation to the next, the U.S. would become a society based on opportunity, where the “pursuit of happiness” promised by the Founders would be available to all people.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a powerful attempt to persuade his audience. His message: They could win the Civil War. They must win the Civil War. They would win the Civil War. It should persuade us today, as well. Now, as then, the fate of our democratic republic is in the hands of its citizens. It’s still up to us to preserve it. For ourselves, and our posterity.