Lincoln: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Quote or No Quote?
Ah, Buzzkillers, I have so much in common with Abraham Lincoln. Height (well, almost), a refusal to suffer fools (hence the founding of the Buzzkill Institute), we’re both excellent wordsmiths, and we have a healthy man-crush on the 19th century Unitarian theologian Theodore Parker. (More on him later.)
I must be getting soft in my old age, Buzzkillers. I’ve been rolling out some genuine quotes lately on Quote or No Quote, and this is another. Anybody who’s completed an elementary school education knows that Abraham Lincoln finished his dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863 by saying 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.
But I thought the background of the quote might fascinate you, and also provide more ammunition for your assault on the ignorance among your office-mates and/or neighborhood pals.
You see, Lincoln had his man crush on Theodore Parker because Parker’s work as an abolitionist and his theological writings had a major influence on Lincoln’s thinking, and on the his move throughout the 1850s and 1860s toward a stronger belief in the abolition of slavery. And Lincoln relied heavily on some of Parker’s published sermons, speeches, and other writings along these lines when crafting his own writings.
In an 1850 speech entitled, “The American Idea” and given to the New England Anti-Slavery Convention, Parker defined “the American Idea” as, “a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.”
Even then, Buzzkillers, this was not an unknown sentiment. It is almost certain that Parker knew of Daniel Webster’s use of the idea in 1830, expressed as, “The people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people.”
But it’s also highly probable, in fact I’d bet the entire Buzzkill Institute on it, that both Parker and Webster (and maybe even Lincoln) knew of its use in 1384. That’s right, Buzzkillers, I said 1384. John Wycliffe wrote in his prologue to the first English translation of the Bible, that “The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.” Wycliffe meant that following the tenets of the Bible helped control (that is, “govern”) the people, and that the translation into a common language was by the people and for the people.
Nearly 500 years later, Honest Abe put that phraseology to awfully good use.
The Collected Works of Theodore Parker, Containing His Theological, Polemical, and Critical, Writings, Sermons, Speeches, and Addresses, and Literary Discourses of Theology (2016).
The majority of Theodore Parker’s most important writings are now available in this excellent edition.