Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

272 Words

My contribution to a larger project on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address:

It is surely among the great paradoxes of the human condition that liberty attains its clearest meaning at its most imperiled hour. At its safest moments, liberty is lived and acted upon and enjoyed and praised, and yet largely unrecognized. It is the threat of loss or indeed the realization that occurs when liberty has been extinguished that attests to its worth, not the many vacuous appeals to its name for political ends in less threatening times. We accordingly shudder at the incongruities of a government conceived in liberty while denying its blessings to an entire race and asserting by force of law that which nature cannot sanction. We reconcile ourselves to its architects in hopeful attachment to the notion that they tolerated this internal contradiction that it might be later eclipsed. So too do we stake the legitimacy of our entire civic order to the promise of consent and an absolute liberty to withdraw it, yet the occasion of our present commemoration indulged a “consent” by force against those who would claim the mantle of self-determination while denying its most basic exercise to a captive brethren in their midst. As we remember the Civil War, we do so under the shadows of impenetrable complexity, discomforting contradiction, and an unfathomable toll in lives. While we see liberty betrayed all around – at the whipping post of the plantation, through the destructive force of clashing armies, and in the halls of governments that sanctioned each and sanction such other predations as we know today – when lost human nature yearns for its recovery, as a few distant words at Gettysburg so plainly attest.


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