Thursday, November 21, 2013

Democracy and the Indispensable Person

Earlier this week was the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's dedicatory remarks at Gettysburg National Cemetery. It's worth re-reading. Here's the complete text, taken from wikipedia:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
To me, the speech is an exhortation to a war-weary nation that the Cause--representative government--is worth the hundreds of thousands of casualties already suffered, and the unknown deaths to come. It's also a deft, eloquent pivot to the new meaning for victory; victory means union, yes, but also a "new birth of freedom" for four million slaves.

The speech is a statement of democracy's worth. It's also a work of Lincoln's genius. One could argue that Lincoln's genius is pretty un-democratic stuff--it's his genius; he was born with it, or worked for it. And I think, to a large extent, genius isn't democratic at all--genius belongs to individuals. But in order for a democracy to thrive, genius must be used in the service of democracy. Perhaps the most dramatic example in American history is how Lincoln used his political genius to save democracy (and his genius with language to help give the war meaning), but it isn't hard to think of other ways the products and talents of geniuses have been harvested to protect or promote democratic growth.

This is something I've only begun to wrap my head around, and I'm still struggling with it. During the Civil War, Lincoln frequently employed means of dubious legality to achieve what he believed was a more important democratic end--victory. He's frequently criticized for this, along the lines of: how can one save democracy by ignoring democratic laws? I tend to sympathize with that reasoning, but it's clear that Lincoln made unilateral, deeply undemocratic decisions out of necessity, without a desire for un- or anti-democratic power. He was successful because out of his genius. And Lincoln's genius was indispensable to the Union cause.

I'm not sure exactly what it all means, but I think history makes the point obvious: democracy cannot survive or prosper without singularly talented people who want democracy to succeed. Is that a contradiction? I don't know, but Gettysburg Address is amazing.

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