Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John Wycliffe and the Gettysburg Address

Fascinating article from the November 19, 2013 Telegraph:
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.

1 comment:

asdf said...

Have you read Wycliffe's prologue? I have, at least the parts that made it on-line. You can see it here. Nothing about "of the people" there.

Volokh traced down this myth and reported "[T]hree sources ... say that they've read the whole General Prologue and can't find anything remotely similar to the government of the people ... quote."

Maybe the phrase came from this source: " ... a government of the people by the same people -- can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes." That was Abraham Lincoln, in 1861. The statement at Gettysburg was just a re-working of the same thought.