It has been one of my long-standing regrets that, despite having lived for years within a short, easy drive of Gettysburg National Military Park, I never visited. Resolving to correct this error, on Washington’s Birthday I piled kids and dog into the family SUV and, following in the footsteps of the Army of Northern Virginia, headed north across the Mason-Dixon Line.
Our visit was an ill-planned, spur-of-the-moment affair. We arrived too late for the last guided tour, and wouldn’t have been able to join it in any case; as it turns out, dogs are not permitted on the buses, nor in the visitor center, the museums, or in the national cemetery. So the four of us wandered among the cannons and cenotaphs of Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill and the surrounding fields and woods.
At home that evening, I sat the kids down to watch Episode Five of Ken Burns’s Civil War series—“The Universe of Battle,” about Gettysburg. When I had first watched it as a college student, it did not reach me emotionally. The events seemed distant, the nineteenth-century faces looked dour and mournful, the country unfamiliar; all those letters, drawled out Scarlett O’Hara-style, lent themselves to callow mockery. Now, nearly 30 years later, the imagery and narration, the poignant miniature vignettes, and Shelby Foote’s commentaries held me spellbound. The enormity of the sacrifice of all those young men seemed heartbreaking and unfathomably heroic. A plainspoken recitation of Lincoln’s 272 “appropriate words,” which the president delivered at the dedication of the national cemetery a few months after the battle, brought tears to my eyes. The actor spoke them without affect or artifice, just as I imagine Lincoln did.
My ancestors did not fight and die at Gettysburg or any other Civil War battlefield. In the summer of 1863, they were minor-league shopkeepers in the shtetls of eastern Ukraine. I have not served in the military and have no direct personal connection to Gettysburg. Like millions of Americans, my roots here are barely one generation deep. And yet, there in that bucolic refuge from the triviality of our public life, I felt a deep connection to the men who fought and fell there. How does this happen?
The French refer to their ancestors as Nos pères les gaulois—Our fathers the Gauls. This verbal formula is taught to all French schoolchildren without distinction as to ancestry—Moroccans, Algerians, Ivorians, Jews, as well as those really descended from Franks and Gauls. By today’s depressing standards, this is a racist notion, one that supposedly “erases” the identities of “migrants” and “people of color.” But it’s a beautiful and generous idea — the idea that newcomers may be adopted into the extended family of a great and ancient nation.
American identity is more fluid. We don’t adopt our immigrants into any ancient nation; no one ever speaks of “our fathers the Jutes” or “our fathers the East Coast Protestant Establishmentarians.” Our fathers, as Lincoln says, brought forth on this continent a new nation, dedicated to a creed, not tribal affiliation. It used to be that to join America one had only to believe in the creed and to add one’s own ethnic spice to the national stew. And yet, there it is in Lincoln—the idea of a patria, a family relationship between earlier and later generations of Americans. Lincoln was exhorting his countrymen to finish the job begun with the turning of the tide at Gettysburg, and when he spoke of “our fathers” he meant it both literally and figuratively. America is not merely an idea or mound of legal parchment, but also the home of the American people, with a history and an ancestry, both literal and symbolic. We should think about ourselves in this way much more than we do.
Our current politics is sometimes described as a “cold civil war,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. Ours is a simmering religious war, more like sixteenth-century Europe than nineteenth-century America. Civil wars are about politics; religious wars are about deeper things. Writing in 1792, Washington observed, “religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause; and I was not without hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy of the present age would have put an effectual stop to contentions of this kind.” It did, for a while. Our Civil War was fought to settle basic political and constitutional questions left unresolved at the Founding. But it was fought by two parties that, in Lincoln’s words, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” The parties to our current religious war most definitely do not pray to the same God.
Progressive politics is distinguishable from religious fundamentalism only in that it resembles a quasi-pagan hodgepodge of cults and deities. At its center is submission to the benevolence, wisdom, and sacred power of the State. There is a Cult of Equality and a Diversity Mystery Rite. There are not one, but two versions of original sin—racism and crimes against Gaia—as well as an End Times mania connected with the second. There is a canon of sacred texts whose dogma brooks no dissent. There are witch trials and rituals of confession and expiation for the sin of Whiteness. There are saints and martyrs, priests and heretics, a Satan, and—briefly—a Messiah. The euphoria of 2008 and the apocalyptic panic of 2016 are two sides of the same essentially religious experience.
In his First Inaugural, Lincoln appealed to the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone,” calling upon this connection to preserve friendship between North and South. He failed. As living memories die, the national memory fades, and the living memory of Gettysburg died long ago. A people without a collective memory is a people without a history, and a people without a history is not a nation. According to the prevailing wisdom of our age, we’re all supposed to despise our adoptive ancestors now.
Well, nuts to that.
When the weather gets warmer, I’ll take the kids back to Gettysburg, and this time we’ll plan ahead and do it right.