With a little help from our friends in the Bully Pulpit series on political communication, the Jubilee Project held its final public program of the year: a panel discussion of the historical meaning and contemporary significance of the Gettysburg Address. Congressman James L. Clyburn, Professor Vernon Burton (Clemson University), and Professor Brian McGee (College of Charleston) gave brief presentations that assessed Lincoln’s celebrated remarks from a political, historical, and rhetorical standpoint, respectively, before the floor was opened for questions and answers. For me, one of the strongest points made was Professor Burton’s that in 1863 there was no guarantee that by the beginning of the 21st century, Lincoln’s faith in freedom and democracy might have become so ubiquitous. Lincoln’s reference to a “new birth of freedom” should not be understood just in a local context, alluding to the expansion of freedom to those who were unfree in the slave-holding states, but in a global context where the revolutionary 18th-century drive toward republican democracy was in danger of stalling out.
Much was also made of Lincoln’s Biblical allusions. I would suggest that the Address has in fact become an article of faith in American politics, and stands as a kind of creed in America’s secular political religion. As such the speech reminds us of the power of ideas, and the necessity for great leaders to find words sufficient not just to express those ideas, but to inspire others to put those ideas into practice. Without the rhetorical skill of the Gettysburg’s Address, without the soaring oratory of Martin Luther King a hundred years later, who is to say whether the principles of freedom, democracy and equality of opportunity would have been put into practice and given the force of law.
The pictures below show President P George Benson of the College of Charleston with Congressman Clyburn,; College of Charleston theatre professor Joy Vandervort-Cobb reading the Gettysburg Address at the beginning of the event; and the three panelists–Congressman Clyburn, Professor Burton, and Professor McGee.