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The Significance Of Context To Literary Understanding: Historical Context In Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”

2078 words - 9 pages

Throughout the semester, the readers have been clashing with each other over which label best fits the author, but they have ignored the minute particulars. These readers are looking at the forest as a broad generalization, and they are missing out on what the forest really is… a bunch of trees. All of these trees are diverse but similar: they are American authors, and the forest is American literature. One might think that this is a flimsy analogy, but it is the most apt and succinct way of explaining this issue. To truly understand any text, one must couch it within historical context; to be valid, an interpretation has to make sense within the historical context, and it has to agree with the minute particulars of the text. If either of these criterion are not met, then the interpretation will not be representative of the text whatsoever. It is imperative that one pay heed to the minute particulars and the text’s historical context: otherwise, the text will be vastly misinterpreted and misrepresented in any discussion of the text. The students grossly mischaracterized Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address “as a pro-abolitionist tract; they also seemed to think that President Lincoln was some divine martyr for anti-slavery sentiment, and that he was an exemplary person with regards to American identity. They could not be further from the truth. Historical context is paramount to understanding Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”.
The text starts off with an appeal to authority with a reference to the Constitution, and a phrase juts out that contradicts Lincoln’s actual belief: “[A]ll men are created equal” (Lincoln “Gettysburg Address”). Lincoln did not believe that Whites and Blacks were equal. Lincoln previously stated:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality (Lincoln “First Debate with Stephen Douglas”).
How can good ‘ol “Honest Abe” lie? Well, he was a superb politician, first and foremost. The historical facts enlighten the reading of a text, and this is just one of many examples from the ‘Gettysburg Address”. Without historical context, Lincoln is idealized as a great American hero who freed the slaves and hated slavery; he was the man who believed Blacks were equal, the quintessential progressive; he was the man who fought to get rid of slavery in the country; the Civil War was about freeing the slaves and not about state’s rights. The aforementioned ideal of Lincoln as a savior and presidential hero is far removed from reality. He was a president stuck with the job of preserving our Union, and that was his goal. The Civil War was fought because certain states believed they still had the right to secede, as granted by the Articles of Confederation. It was not fought to free the slaves.
Lincoln knew better than the...

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