November 21st, 2008


Something to think about

I stumbled across a line in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 13th Ed. (1955), which made me open my eyes a little wider. The General Prologue to Wycliffe's translation of the Bible says,
This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.

Abraham Lincoln might not have read Wycliffe, but he had to know he was borrowing the phrase in The Gettysburg Address. What is interesting is that the words have remained the same, but the meaning of the word "Government" has shifted -- or has it?

We usually take Lincoln's closing aspiration, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth," to refer to Government as an institution. When we say "the Government," we are referring to the structures and office-holders who run the country. They are "of the people," in that we have no ruling class. They are "by the people," because their authority comes from election or process of law whose origin is with the ordinary folk of the country. They are "for the people" in that their only justification for existence is to serve, not be served. At least, these things are so when Government approximates to the model we hold up as an American ideal. This being so, we assume Lincoln means, If we live up to the example of these men who died defending the Constitution, then the American experiment in self-government shall not fail.

But Wycliffe was not thinking of the institution when he said "Government of the People." His Bible wasn't given to the government to use in their work, but to the people to use in theirs. In Wycliffe's sense "Government" is the process of governing. The Bible is given "for the Government of the People" -- in other words, to make them behave better; "by the People," because making them behave better is not a matter of forcing them but of converting them; "for the People," because when persons are ruled by the Bible (or by the God of the Bible, to be more correct) then they are happiest.

Now, Lincoln could have been merely misquoting a saying to prove his point, rather like those who say, "more honored in the breach than in the observance" to mean something like "more frequently honored" or even "breaking rules is good," rather than what Hamlet actually meant, which was "people would think better of us if we didn't." And in all likelihood, Lincoln was using Government in the modern sense we are familiar with. But what if he knew Wycliffe, and was deliberately using the word in the older sense? How does that change the meaning of the Gettysburg Address?

It would mean something like, We should dedicate ourselves to following the example of these men who died here, so that people will learn to behave better (like it says in the Bible) -- without being forced -- and so be happy. If that should be what he did, in fact, mean, then that is something better than just hoping that our side (the "good side," as we think it) will win.