God and Gettysburg

First Things, August 2010.

The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Constitution of the United States of America”those were the three texts in the blue pamphlet I found on the table in front of me as I took my seat at a conference at Princeton.

On the cover was the logo of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, an influential organization whose boardmembers include former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, controversial Obama judicial nominee Goodwin Liu, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, former solicitors general Drew Days and Walter Dellinger, and former attorney general Janet Reno. The new Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was a speaker at the society’s annual conventions in 2005, 2007, and 2008. And inside the pamphlet was a page saying, “The printing of this copy of the U.S. Constitution and of the nation’s two other founding texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, was made possible through the generosity of Laurence and Carolyn Tribe.”

How nice, I thought. Here is a convenient, pocket-sized version of our fundamental documents, including Lincoln’s great oration at Gettysburg on republican government. Although some might question the idea that a speech given more than eighty years after the Declaration qualifies as a founding text, its inclusion seemed to me entirely appropriate. By preserving the Union, albeit at a nearly incalculable cost in lives and suffering, Lincoln completed, in a sense, the American founding. Victory at Gettysburg really did ensure that government “by the people” and “for the people””republican government”would not “perish from the earth.”

I recalled that in sixth grade I was required to memorize the address, and as I held the American Constitution Society’s pamphlet in my hands, I wondered whether I could still recite it from memory….

First Things