Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Senate of the State of Neva Jersey: I am very grateful to you for the honorable reception of which I have been the object. I cannot but remember the place that New Jersey holds in our early history. In the Revolutionary struggle few of the States among the Old Thirteen had more of the battlefields of the country within their limits than New Jersey. May I be pardoned 11, upon this occasion, I mention that away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read, I got hold of a small book, such a one as few of the younger members have ever seen--Weems' "Life of Washington." I remember all the accounts there given of the battle-fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New Jersey. The crossing of the river, the contest with the Hessians, the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single Revolutionary event; and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that these men struggled for. I am exceedingly anxious that that thing--that something even more than national independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the People of the world to all time to come--I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty and of this almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle. You give me this reception, as I understand, without distinction of party. I learn that this body is composed of a majority of gentlemen who, in the exercise of their best judgment in the choice of a chief magistrate, did not think I was the man. I understand, nevertheless, that they come forward here to greet me as the constitutionally elected President of the United States--as citizens of the United States to meet the man who for the time being, is the representative of the majesty of the nation--united by the single purpose to perpetuate the Constitution, the Union, and the liberties of the people. As such, I accept this reception more gratefully than I could do did I believe it were tendered to me as an individual.--February 21, 1861 A. Lincoln "Address to the Senate of New Jersey"
Yesterday, I discussed an essay by Himmelfarb, which makes passing reference to Lincoln's "this almost chosen people" in order to argue for the close connection between religion and nationalism. I had not noticed the phrase before so I looked for Lincoln's text in which it occurs. Thanks to the internet, I have reproduced it above. Without wishing to deny its blemishes, it is characteristic Lincoln: terse, political, prophetic, and profound.
First, Lincoln flatters his audience by evoking Trenton’s and New Jersey’s significance in the struggle for independence. It’s a peculiar form of flattery because no citizen of the Garden state or its capital – the ancestors of his audience -- is actually recalled. They are supposed to feel pride in virtue of another kind (perhaps no less firm) association, location or place.
Second, Lincoln elevates himself because it is his memories of reading about the War of Independence that helps disclose the meaning of these revolutionary memories. He does so by an amazing rhetorical feat; he connects with his masculine audience as a fellow man by emphatically addressing them in the second person (“you all know, for you have all been boys,”) – he subtly invokes their common humanity -- who recognizes that boyhood impressions are simultaneously partial and durable; yet, it’s his memories as a precocious kid of reading a rare book that become the key to historical meaning. That is, Lincoln is in one sense everyman and that rare, insightful reader of signs--a prophet, who has a divine historical mission (“humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty” [recall my earlier post on the second inaugural]) . Before I get to that meaning, I need to highlight another feature of his rhetoric.
Third, Lincoln performs another astounding rhetorical feat. Like a magician who executes his trick while showing its mechanics, he displaces the natural exemplar, George Washington, -- Weems’s Life is almost certainly a contribution to the classical genre of generating an exemplary life for study and emulation –, whose practical wisdom one may wish to apply at a new national emergency, with a different conception of political agency and political nationhood.
As an aside (and to advance the argument), above I suggested that Lincoln elevates himself. He does by in virtue of another, more daring touch: Lincoln presents his boy-hood self as less interested in particular agents (no individuals are mentioned), and more interested in political abstractions (e.g., battle-fields; struggles for the liberties of the country; the crossing of the river, the contest with the Hessians, the great hardships!) That is, Lincoln signals his receptivity to abstruse, even philosophical thought. For, he turns the independence struggle – a word repeated like a mantra through his brief speech (it should have lasted no more than five minutes) – into a fight for an “original idea.”
That it’s an original idea allows Lincoln to screen off intrusion from later corruptions which may offer alternative interpretations, to insinuate that the meaning he is about to disclose is somehow natural (unblemished), and, most importantly, foundational.
Lincoln does not quite deny that in some basic sense the war was fought for national independence. But he denies that this is the historical, even providential meaning of the struggle. Rather, it’s for something more elevated and abstract: the survival of the “Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people”* which will be an exemplar – a new kind of exemplar not a human life – to “all the People of the world.””
Survival of this union is itself a pre-condition for the very possibility to act as an exemplar. For, while exemplary, political human lives as represented in books are mortal (leaving aside in what sense Christ may be an exemplar and a political exemplar at that), this kind of exemplary political union has to resist mortality--a self-governing people that preserves the liberties of the people [and Lincoln knew how fragile and selective this preservation was] was thought impossible maybe not in theory, but certainly impossible in practice. And while political immortality may be impossible, each generation has the task and duty as much as it is in its power to perpetuate such an union into the open-ended future. The outcome of this effort is not foreordained. Their is no divine promise or providential guarantee, America is not a chosen people. But through effort, a battling will to survive, it can make itself into an "almost chosen people."
And just before one can contemplate the idolatry in these train of thoughts, we return to politics.
In closing, and providing concrete sustenance to the elevated ideas he has put forth, Lincoln calls attention to one way in which such a task can be practiced by fallible and mortal men like himself and his audience who exercise their best judgment (again the flattery) and inevitably will fall short of perfection or even human wisdom (and undoubtedly in Trenton there was too much sympathy for slaveholders' rights): that is, to honor the office of the President because he represents not the people as such, but he represents the majesty of the nation. And here, I'd like to think, Lincoln is drawing on the radical element supplied by Thomas Paine (see here); for this majesty consists in the freedom of the people and their ability to choose and reject their own governor periodically and accept the results of their own wisdom, and folly.
* He is anticipating (recall) the Gettysburg address: a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal..it is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work...It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.