Whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
This was Lincoln’s attempt to convince his listeners that democracy was going to last — a proposition not as self-evident as you might think:
The warning Lincoln issues is his admission that the Civil War was testing whether or not democracies are inherently unstable — “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” Today, many take democracy for granted as the endpoint of political development. But it did not look that way in 1863. The French Revolution, which promised to be the American Revolution’s beachhead in Europe, swiftly circled downward in the Reign of Terror and then the tyranny of Bonaparte; democratic uprisings in Spain in 1820, in Russia in 1825, in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848 were crushed by newly renascent monarchies or subverted by Romantic philosophers, glorying in regimes built on blood, soil and nationality rather than the Rights of Man.
The outbreak of the American Civil War only gave the monarchs further reason to rejoice. The survival of the American democracy had been a thorn in their royal sides, unsettling their downtrodden peoples with dreams of self-government. That this same troublesome democracy would, in 1861, obligingly proceed to blow its own political brains out — and do it in defense of the virtues of human slavery — gave the monarchs no end of delight.
Lincoln’s task at Gettysburg was to persuade his hearers, on the evidence offered by three days of battle, that democracy’s sun had not set after all.
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