On November 19, 1863, at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln, weak and lightheaded with an oncoming case of smallpox, made a speech that lasted for just over two minutes, and ended with his hope “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.”
Those words have been quoted ever since as the supreme vindication of representative government. Indeed, they are often quoted as proof of American exceptionalism. But the words were not Lincoln’s. Most of his hearers would have recognised their source, as our generation typically does not. They came from the prologue to what was probably the earliest translation of the Bible into the English language: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” The author was the theologian John Wycliffe, sometimes called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Astonishingly, they had first appeared in 1384.