Jill Jess Phythyon
KU News Service

Researcher: Gettysburg Address still has plenty to teach us 150 years later

Tue, 11/19/2013

LAWRENCE  — Seven score and 10 years ago, a beleaguered leader stood before a solemn scene and spoke 272 words — words that still echo through the halls of American schools and statehouses.

Jennifer WeberOn Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery. The entire speech was so concise that the photographer covering the event did not have time to capture the president actually giving the address, according to Jennifer Weber, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

“Lincoln had a gift. He had the gift of a poet — being able to crystalize big ideas into a few words,” Weber said. “It’s etched in our memories in part because it is a beautiful piece; it’s one of the greatest pieces of writing in American letters.”

Weber’s teaching and research focuses on the Civil War, especially the seams where political, social and military history meet. She has written extensively on the topic, including the book “Copperheads,” about the antiwar movement in the North, and “Summer’s Bloodiest Days,” a children’s book about the Battle of Gettysburg, which was named in 2011 as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the National Council for Social Studies.

The Gettysburg Address captured the aims of the American Civil War effort precisely, Weber said.

“It’s about saving the union, and when Lincoln talks about a ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth,’ he’s talking about a republican (lowercase 'r') form of government. There was only one other country on the planet that had that form of government at the time. And that was Switzerland. Lincoln was very concerned about saving the republic not just because it was his country, but also because of what it meant to the world,” she said.

And, of course, the “new birth of freedom” means emancipation of slaves.

Lincoln had always opposed slavery, once writing to a friend, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” But he was also a realist and understood that the practice was protected by the Constitution. The war pushed him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which later was formalized with the 13th Amendment.

“Lincoln took it literally that all men, regardless of color, were created equal. He sought very specifically to hold the U.S. to the promise that was set out at its founding, in a way that other people had not quite put together before,” Weber said.

Lincoln was also a great politician, Weber said, understanding give and take. He was not so far in front of public opinion as to lose support for his actions. But by the time of the Gettysburg Address, he was firmly committed to the dual war aims of ending slavery and saving the union.

“This was his chance to lay down the marker and also to acknowledge the tremendous loss of life that had taken place in the war already by that point. He needed to motivate Americans to stick with to see that these men shall not have died in vain,” Weber said.

Historians regard Lincoln  as perhaps more spiritual than religious. He did not attend church as an adult and never joined a church. But he felt a deep responsibility for the loss of life in the war, and he believed that slavery was morally wrong.

He also turned to the Bible as a source of thought and writing.

“Lincoln is such an interesting guy,” Weber said. “He had maybe nine months of formal education. Everything else he learned was self-taught. He read the Bible, Shakespeare and Aesop’s Fables. You can particularly see the influence of the Bible and Shakespeare in the Gettysburg Address.”

While current political and ideological divisions among Americans may seem parallel to the years leading up to the Civil War, Weber warns not to draw a direct correlation.

“I would not at all say we are on the way to civil war,” she said. “At the same time, what you saw in the 1850s was a total breakdown of the political process with the people who could not or would not compromise. With Lincoln, you saw someone who was a very, very gifted communicator who was able to make people understand what he was doing and why. He kept them in the loop. The Gettysburg Address is a great example of that.”

Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

RT @kulibraries : Check out this news feature & then check out his book with us: #KULibraries #KUWorks…
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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