© 2018, Farok J. Contractor, Rutgers Business School
After the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in early July 1863 during the American Civil War, President Lincoln, the leader of the northern United States in combat with the southern Confederacy, was invited to speak at a cemetery for the dead soldiers.
Growing up in a log cabin in the then wilderness of Illinois, Lincoln had no formal education. He was self-taught by reading books, becoming a wise man whose thoughts went beyond his humble beginnings to encompass American ideals—and his vision of what a just world should look like.
Lincoln Image Source: Wikipedia–Abraham Lincoln; Address Image Source (click graphic to enlarge): Wikipedia–Gettysburg Address
The relevance of his brief Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863, is not only for the US, but for the world we live in 155 years later—a world where ideas of authoritarianism, suppression of minorities, and the concept that a small apex of society should rule the “bottom of the pyramid” are again threatening to gain ascendance.
What the World in 1863 Looked Like
At the end of Lincoln’s 272 words, he spoke about participatory democracy: “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The significance of this escapes most people—even most Americans—until we realize that the United States was the world’s only nearly full democracy at that time, according to historians and political scientists who put together the map shown in Figure 1. From today’s perspective, this seems hard to believe.
Figure 1: Democracy in 1863
Sources: Our World in Data–Democracy; Wikipedia–Polity Data Series
Most of the world at that time was under the thumb of a monarch, a dictator, or a general. Even Great Britain in 1863 is classified by political scientists as an “anocracy,” or partial democracy. There was no representative democracy in the UK. Seats in Parliament were controlled by landed aristocrats, and voting was restricted to a handful of property owners until the Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to all men over 21 years of age and to women over 30 years of age. (Women under 30 had to wait until 1928.)
The idea that all men (and women) are created equal would have been laughed at in the world outside the northern US, which was in the throes of a civil war against the southern states over the question of slavery. That is to say, out of a world population of 1.2 billion, only 22 million in the northern US were on the side of freedom, equality, and representative democracy.
What Lincoln Was Alluding To
Like most nations, American society can reflect the best and worst of human behavior. Lincoln was alluding not only to the battle just fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, not just to America getting rid of dominance of one “race” over another, but to a nobler ideal applicable to the entire world.
He started the short speech by quoting “…all men are created equal.” Then “…in a larger sense” he alludes to the “…unfinished work…” and a “…great task remaining before us.…” What is this “remaining” “great task” facing all humankind? To give dignity and a voice to each individual, however small or humble.
What the World of Recent Years Looks Like
Until 1950, less than one-tenth of humankind lived in democracies or quasi-democracies. But then there was considerable progress between 1950 and 2006, as we see in Figure 2. By 2015, a tad over half the world’s people lived in democracies of various kinds. Even so, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a consultancy and think tank that distributes its analyses to corporations and governments, classifies only 19 countries in 2017 as “full democracies,” another 57 as “flawed democracies,” 39 nations as “hybrid regimes,” and another 52 as “authoritarian,” as shown in Table 1.
Figure 2: Democracy From 1816 to 2015
Source: Our World in Data–Democracy
Table 1: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2017, by Regime Type
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit
Disquietingly, since the “great recession” of 2008, the mood has darkened, and the world appears to be going backward. The EIU states in its 2018 report that “… we have been going through a ‘democracy recession,’ and this trend of stagnation and/or regression has been reflected in our annual Democracy Index since its launch in 2006.”
One can hardly escape what the daily news reports:
- Declines in voter participation
- Control or suppression of the press in more nations
- Growing curbs on free speech and expression
- Rise in demagoguery and falsehoods uttered even by “western” politicians
- The rise of identity politics
- Mental manipulation through social media
- Loosening grip of traditional political parties
- Declining trust in institutions
Why Lincoln’s Brief Speech Resonates for the World as a Whole Today
In 1863, Lincoln, a self-educated man from the backwoods of Illinois speaking in a remote battlefield in a rural corner of Pennsylvania, was in the middle of a brutal civil war that consumed his full-time attention. Thus it seems implausible that this man’s thoughts would reach so far into the future of humankind. But Lincoln was clearly cognizant that the northern US was the only participatory democracy in a 19th-century world dominated by dictators and monarchs—and aware that the only participatory democracy on the planet could be extinguished, and its catalytic example lost, if the North were defeated by the South in The War Between the States.
Image Source (click graphic to enlarge): Wikipedia–Gettysburg Address
He ended his 272-word speech with phrases that have resonated down the centuries, and they remain relevant for our time. The “…great task remaining before us…,” he said, is to continue the “…new birth of freedom…” so that “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The unfinished task still remaining before us in 2018 is to create a just world where the voice and opinion of the humblest citizen can be freely expressed—and can matter.
My thanks to Prof. Farrokh Langdana of Rutgers Business School for reminding us of the anniversary of this remarkable speech.
 Women in the US did not receive the vote until 1920, but by 1860 the US had the most participatory democracy compared with any other nation on the planet, having done away with property ownership as a requirement in all states except Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina by the middle of the 1820s. Further relaxation of the rules, including whether the person was a taxpayer, meant that by the time of Lincoln’s administration virtually every white male could vote. See Engerman, S.L. and Sokoloff, K.L. (2005). The evolution of suffrage institutions in the New World. The Journal of Economic History, 65(4): 891‒921.
 And not even 22 million, since many in the northern states bordering the Mason-Dixon line were either sympathizers of the south or were equivocal in their commitment to the north.
 Here Lincoln is quoting from the Declaration of Independence that began the American revolution against Great Britain.
2 thoughts on “How a Two-Minute Speech of Only 272 Words Uttered by Abraham Lincoln Is Relevant for the World Today”
Thanks for a cogent and alarmingly accurate depiction of “global depression of democracy.” Is Trump the antithesis of Lincoln?
I am always gratified and enlightened by Professor Contractor’s analysis.
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