After President Donald Trump said Monday that he would likely either accept the Republican nomination at the White House or at Gettysburg, CNN Opinion asked four prominent Civil War historians to share their thoughts. The views expressed here are theirs. Read more opinion on CNN.
Manisha Sinha: As a Civil War historian, I am appalled
President Donald Trump announced recently that he would like to deliver his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination for the presidency either at the White House or the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. It is no surprise that Trump is eager to overthrow all presidential norms and use his official residence, the White House, as a backdrop for his convention address.
Trump has flouted the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and his family and administration officials have ignored the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their public office for private gain, with impunity. That would be mild compared to the many potentially illegal and certainly unethical transgressions of the Trump administration in its efforts to bolster his chances for reelection.
As a Civil War historian, I am however appalled at the idea that Trump is entertaining the idea of using the Gettysburg battlefield as a prop for his acceptance speech. One of the bloodiest battles of the war, it left over 40,000 dead and wounded, of whom nearly half died defending the Union and fighting against human bondage in July 1863.
Often seen as one of the turning points in the war, Gettysburg pointed the path to Union victory and full emancipation for enslaved Americans. Seventy-two Medals of Honor went to Union Army soldiers after the battle. President Barack Obama awarded the last one posthumously in 2014 to 22-year-old Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, who lost his life during the failed Confederate Pickett’s Charge.
The story of Gettysburg is inextricably linked with the story of American democracy. No one articulated that better than President Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address that sanctified the battlefield where so many Union soldiers gave their “last full measure of devotion” to the country. Second perhaps only to the Declaration of Independence’s ringing endorsement of universal natural rights, Lincoln’s memorable speech represented the second founding of the American republic. As he put it, “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.” With these words, Lincoln bound the cause of the American slave, emancipation, with that of American democracy.
Historians rank Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents, a position where Trump often ranks at the bottom, envies and criticizes. He has often said that he has done more for African Americans than any other president, a fantastical claim, with the exception of “old Abe Lincoln.” No president, Trump claims, has been treated as unfairly as he has, forgetting all our assassinated presidents including Lincoln. Trump has already used the Lincoln Memorial for one of his incoherent and falsehood-laden interviews.
Lincoln speaks to us across the ages with words that are timeless. In contrast, Trump’s speeches are the butt of comedians’ jokes and his inability to speak with any facility is shameful. The stark difference between the two presidents could not be greater – Lincoln born in poverty and self-taught on his way to achievement, Trump born with a silver spoon in his mouth and following a downhill path despite being handed everything on a platter.
Yet, Trump aspires to Lincoln-like greatness, clumsily suggesting to the pliant Republican governor of South Dakota that he would like his likeness on Mount Rushmore, which he used for his highly partisan and forgettable Fourth of July speech this year. That this is a desecration of sacred ground of the Lakota people, who protested his rally, predictably does not cross his mind.
Trump’s potential choice of Gettysburg for his acceptance speech is even more offensive given his fondness for Confederate leaders and generals like Robert E. Lee. He has defended the Confederate battle flag and “beautiful” Confederate statues and has included neo-Confederates and White supremacists among “very fine people.” So much so that a few political commentators have called him the last Confederate president.
Gettysburg, site of one of the biggest Confederate debacles of the war, is a standing monument to the defeat of a despicable cause. If Lincoln consecrated Gettysburg with one of the most famous speeches in American history, Trump would just as surely desecrate it by his proposed Republican convention address.
Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.”
Matthew Pinsker: The Gettysburg Address was also Lincoln’s Gettysburg candidacy announcement
The crazy thing about the prospect of President Donald Trump accepting his party’s nomination at Gettysburg is that it’s not as crazy it sounds. The battlefield at Gettysburg invokes solemn emotions, but President Lincoln’s 1863 trip to Pennsylvania was political, too.
The national cemetery dedication occurred on a Thursday in mid-November. Originally, Lincoln was supposed to arrive that morning, but he countermanded official plans and arranged to come up the day before. The “national” cemetery was actually a state-driven effort, sponsored by Union states whose native sons had died during the battle. Most of the northern governors, their advisers, and the traveling press were there. It was a sobering occasion, but also a little festive and quite political, almost like a convention gathering.
The President kept a reasonably low profile after he arrived. But his top aides went out to get fed – and get drunk. We know this because one of them – future Secretary of State John Hay – kept a historian’s dream of a diary. He reported the details from that evening, right down to a boisterous confrontation he observed between a leading Philadelphia newspaper editor and some townspeople he felt were ungrateful in their “apathy” toward the President.
The editor was rightfully worried about Lincoln’s political future. It had been over 30 years since an incumbent had been elected to a second term. Democrats in the North were angry and frustrated. But even worse for the President, leading Republicans – including one of his own disgruntled cabinet members – were actively opposing his re-nomination. The war had just dragged on too long. The divisions over the future of slavery were just too deep. A feisty Congress was about to reassemble. The 1864 elections were looming. The question on everybody’s mind was about choosing the next president.
That was one reason why Lincoln was working so hard to find unifying and inspiring words for his “few appropriate remarks” on November 19th. The address was certainly about honoring the dead on their “hallowed” ground. But the Gettysburg Address was also Lincoln’s Gettysburg announcement.
The result was lean and steady, just like the candidate. It was a mere 272 words but cast in the most evocative way. The message was about resilience in the name of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet, we must not get confused by our own mythology. No speech alone defined Lincoln’s greatness. What set him apart was a unique ability to combine soaring democratic ideals with successful management of gritty political realities.
Nobody expects such magic from our current President. The last time Trump spoke at Gettysburg, as a candidate in October 2016, it was mostly ugliness. He offered about 4,500 words in a rambling litany of complaints about the “totally rigged system” he was confronting as an alleged outsider to politics. Lincoln also had plenty of his own resentments. His political world was even rougher and dirtier than ours. But he somehow retained fundamental dignity while exuding deep civic faith.
If Trump does end up in Gettysburg again, perhaps Lincoln’s example might finally shame him into restraint. Either way, Trump should heed another timely lesson from Lincoln’s Gettysburg experience. The President left town in 1863 with a mild headache and soon became truly sick. Somehow, during his journey Lincoln had contracted a strain of smallpox. He was quarantined for nearly three weeks before he finally recovered. Unfortunately, a servant who had traveled with him to Gettysburg, a free Black man named William Johnson, did not. A chastened President ending up paying for Johnson’s burial. It wasn’t Covid-19, but it was yet another reminder that no man and no president is ever above God or science.
Matthew Pinsker holds the Pohanka Chair for Civil War History and serves as director of the House Divided Project at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Adam Goodheart: No matter what Trump says, he cannot unhallow the spot where Lincoln stood
Abraham Lincoln gave no acceptance speech when the Republicans nominated him for president in 1860. He did not even attend the national convention in Chicago.
Instead, a delegation of GOP leaders took a train down to Springfield, Illinois, met with the former one-term congressman in his front parlor and offered him a spot at the top of the ticket. Lincoln said he needed some time to reflect. Several days later, he replied with a three-sentence letter accepting it. He signed the message simply, “Your obliged friend, and fellow citizen, A. Lincoln.”
This will be just one of many ironies if President Donald J. Trump chooses to stand at Gettysburg, the site of Lincoln’s most famous speech, when he accepts the same party’s nomination later this month. Although Trump has repeatedly tried to associate himself with Lincoln – most recently by staging an interview with Fox News at the Lincoln Memorial, and by proposing that his own face be carved on Mount Rushmore – it is hard to imagine two presidential candidates more different.
While Lincoln’s presidential utterances are now famous, he was actually notable for his reticence. Unlike the logorrheic Trump, Lincoln made public statements infrequently while in office. (One can imagine how our current commander in chief would have tweeted his way through the Civil War: “INCREDIBLE Union victory at Bull Run – don’t believe the #fakenews!”)
Nor did Lincoln stage massive rallies during his candidacy. In fact, he literally could not be dragged out to make a campaign speech.
When a throng of supporters whose size Trump might have envied – more than 30,000 strong, according to contemporary newspapers – gathered for a rally in Springfield in August 1860, they persuaded Lincoln to drive out in his carriage and at least wave to the crowd. Then they hauled him bodily out of the vehicle, dumped him unceremoniously onto the speaker’s platform and demanded a speech. He mumbled a few awkward words of appreciation, leaped onto the back of a nearby horse, and galloped home as fast as it could carry him.
It’s a safe bet that if Trump gives his own Gettysburg Address this month, it will dwarf – at least in its duration – the 272 words that Lincoln spoke there in November 1863. It is also a fair guess that the speech will sound different: the baroque vulgarities of Trump’s public rhetoric stand in glaring contrast to the well-hewn simplicity of Lincoln’s. But the most significant differences between the two men’s oratory is not in size or style, but in substance.
Unlike the preening Trump, who manages to turn the spotlight upon himself even on the most stately and somber public occasions, Lincoln habitually resisted doing so. The Gettysburg Address does not use the first person singular even once. Instead, most of the speech is in the first person plural: Now we are engaged in a great civil war …. We have come to dedicate …. We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
When Trump, in his belligerent 2017 inaugural address, vowed to end “this American carnage,” he tried to foment anger and disunion by invoking carnage that did not in fact exist. Lincoln in 1863 stood on the site of actual carnage – ground still soaked with the blood of thousands of Americans who had recently gathered there to kill one another – and invoked an imagined future of reunification and transcendence.
If Trump does speak at Gettysburg, let us hope that the world will little note, nor long remember, what he says there. And whatever his words might be, they cannot unhallow the ground where Lincoln stood.
Adam Goodheart is the author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” and director of Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
Harold Holzer: Even their similarities highlight the distance between Lincoln and Trump
Before we get too exercised over the bombshell news that President Donald Trump may accept re-nomination at either the White House or the Gettysburg battlefield – profaning sacred space at either place – we might pause to remember how Abraham Lincoln used these venues during the Civil War.
Ironically, Lincoln did no overt campaigning of any kind elsewhere in 1864, when he ran for a second term. The reigning political culture frowned on presidential candidates who coveted the job too blatantly.
And yet, it seemed that each time a regiment of Union soldiers marched past the White House, Lincoln greeted them with a brief speech. To no one’s surprise, newspaper stenographers always seemed to be on hand to jot down the remarks so they could be reprinted in the nation’s press, where they substituted nicely for campaign speeches. Of course, Lincoln could not help but be both eloquent and modest. “To the humblest and poorest amongst us are held out the highest privileges and positions,” he reminded a group of Ohio veterans. “The present moment finds me at the White House, yet there is as good a chance for your children as there was for my father’s.” Vote for me, he seemed to be hinting, if you want to preserve opportunity for yourselves.
Trump perhaps can’t be forbidden from using the White House to promote his own vision for, and version of, the American dream. But since he often compares himself to Lincoln, maybe we should at least require that he emulate Lincoln’s self-effacement.
Let’s set the bar much higher at Gettysburg, where tens of thousands of brave soldiers died, as Lincoln put it, “that the nation might live.” Talk about modesty! When he spoke on November 19, 1863, Lincoln had been invited essentially as an afterthought, only to deliver “a few appropriate remarks.” He proceeded to offer one of the most sublime paeans to democracy ever crafted. Truth be told, some Democratic newspapermen did complain at the time that it was a purely political speech, the launch of Lincoln’s reelection bid a year in advance.
Even if so, Trump need only follow its structure to avoid despoiling its memory. Read the speech, Mr. President: it’s only 272 words, much shorter than one of those bulky briefing books. As you’ll discover, Lincoln talked about a nation “conceived in liberty” – that is, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, unfettered and undemonized. He spoke of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” – or as he had codified in the Emancipation Proclamation 11 months earlier, where black lives matter.
Lincoln wondered, in obvious anguish, whether the country, riven by civil war, could “long endure” – but he said nothing at Gettysburg to intensify the divisiveness that had split it apart. Yes, Lincoln vowed to make America great again – but in hushed tones, and with no references at all to himself, his travails or his triumphs.
On second thought, please stay away from Gettysburg, President Trump. You already soiled it four years ago, when you appeared there in the wake of your vile Access Hollywood tape.
Lincoln’s only miscue at Gettysburg was to predict that the world would “little note nor long remember” what he said there. Mercifully, most of us have forgotten what Trump said there in 2016.
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When Lincoln arrived at Gettysburg the day before his immortal speech, he joked that the best thing a president could ever do was “avoid saying foolish things.” There is one Gettysburg Address Trump really needs to study before making another speech of his own, anywhere.
Harold Holzer is a National Humanities medalist and author of multiple books about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. His latest book, “The Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media – From the Founding Fathers to Fake News,” will be published by Dutton August 25.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the number of dead in the battle of Gettysburg.