You’ve undoubtedly heard by now about the greatest 272 words uttered by an American President. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address happened 150 years ago, today. For posterity’s sake, let’s read them just one more time.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—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.
The primary orator that day was Mr. Edward Everett, one of the great orators of the day. Mr. Everett spoke for two hours. President Lincoln just two minutes. And in those two minutes, the President spoke words that ring as true today as in 1863. President Lincoln basically said three things:
- We are a country where all, regardless of sex, religion, or race, are created equal. We have differences, and it’s those differences that create our country’s combined strength.
- We are unworthy of those that have given their lives, and it is for us to remember them, to honor their memory and more importantly their sacrifice.
- We are responsible for our country’s direction. If the country “drives over the cliff” and loses its direction, it’s not a person’s or the government’s fault; it’s our fault.
**Note: those three bullet points take up 85 words. And they will not be nearly as relevant or viewed as eloquent in 150 years.
While we look at the speech through the filter of history, you have to extricate yourself from your comfortable life of today and use your imagination. Put yourself in that place, in that time. The Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, 1863. It ended on July 3, 1863. The Soldiers’ National Cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863, just four and a half short months later. The smells of decay and gunpowder, the stench of dead and rotting horses, the destruction, the likelihood that there might have still even been a corpse of a fallen soldier around, all of these things factored in to this day. The ground was torn up, the result of cannonball after cannonball fired at fellow Americans, brigade after brigade of soldier marching headlong into the line to prevent a breach. Tents were still standing sporadically throughout the billeting areas, blowing in the wind and not removed. It was November in southwest Pennsylvania, so there was a distinct chill in the air. The graves where they placed the honored dead were mass graves; holes dug by hand, lined with bodies, and filled back again by hand. There was not the clean precision of today. Battlefields in 1863 were indiscriminate, and they took years to recover. And the audience that November day experienced just a small portion of the horror from the battle in July 1863.
It’s at this backdrop that Lincoln spoke one of the most famous collection of words of all time. He tugged at the very idea of what America is. The country wasn’t even 100 years old, and already it was tearing itself apart, with brother fighting brother. But, as he so eloquently put it, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”. He wasn’t pointing fingers and saying that it’s the Confederacy’s fault, or the Southern Democrat’s fault. He’s saying that it’s OUR fault, and these men, these “honored dead” who gave the “last full measure of devotion” should not have died in vain.
I’ve been to Gettysburg one time. It was raining and cool the day we were there in 2004, and I didn’t get the opportunity to truly explore the place. But even then, 141 years after the battle, there was reverence. It was quiet. It was reserved. That place is sacred. Men and boys, women and children, Jew or Christian, Black or White, they were all lost that day. And this speech reminds us of that fact that we are not worthy of their sacrifice. There is unfinished business to be addressed, and the easy path is to just give up. The country cannot give up. The country must strive to the ideal, our government truly a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
This day in 1863 was about healing scars. Scars on the Earth. Scars of soldiers’ lost. Scars deep across the United States. Scars in our hearts. President Lincoln’s remarks, just two minutes in length, provided a goal, a vision. I could easily use this day as a way to prove that my side is better than yours, that my ideas are better than yours. But that misses the point of the President’s speech. The speech captures, in two minutes and 272 words, what it means to be American, and more importantly, what our responsibility is as Americans. We are not Irish, not African, not Scandinavian, English, or Hispanic. We are American. And we need this speech today. More importantly, we need someone dedicated to the concept of what America can be, not what we’re entitled to.
So, from the historical edge…