Our Gettysburg Address

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lincoln-gettysburg-addressWe came close this past July, but I think it’s safe to say that the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is the closest this nation will come to a collective remembrance of the Civil War. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Lincoln’s words capture what for many is the essence of the war: sacrifice, freedom, and union.

While the number of newspaper editorials and television shows marking the occasion is impressive, it is the hundreds, if not thousands, of videos of people reciting the Gettysburg Address currently being uploaded to YouTube and other servers that I find telling. I’ve said before that it is the role of social media that marks this sesquicentennial as unique in that it has allowed individuals from all walks of life the opportunity to share their interests and perspectives on the past.

It’s not enough to read or listen to Lincoln’s words. We want to recite them ourselves, not to identify with the historical Lincoln, but perhaps to reaffirm principles that right now seem to be elusive. Or perhaps we need to be reminded that elected officials once had the power to inspire. Either way…

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

3 comments… add one

  • Pat Young Nov 19, 2013

    Here is what I wrote this morning for my immigrant readers who didn’t grow up memorizing the Gettysburg Address:

    Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The speech was given on a hill overlooking a scene of mass slaughter where lay the graves entombing the rotting remains of thousands of newly dead Americans.

    The speech was given a year after the Emancipation Proclamation and was essentially a poetic treatment on the themes of democracy and human equality.
    The final line of the speech explains that the Union soldiers had died so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Southern slave owners had forced their states to declare their departure from the United States not because of anything Lincoln had done, but simply because he had been elected. In fact, most of the Confederate states had seceded before Lincoln was even inaugurated. Lincoln said that if this was allowed to stand than any time any group of rich Americans did not like the results of an election they could simply secede. This would end “government of the people” and make democracy a joke. Lincoln said the the slaveowners were trying to win by the bullet what they had lost at the ballot.

    The Gettysburg Address even more importantly extends the meaning of who is included in the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln knew that the Founders’ seemingly universal declaration had implicitly excluded non-whites, but Lincoln had insisted throughout his career that the plain meaning of the Declaration guaranteed civil equality before the law for people regardless of race.

    When Lincoln said “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he was fully cognizant that Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, was a slave owner. He insisted, lawyer that he was, that the Founders’ promise of civil equality be fulfilled even though he understood that they had reserved that “equality” for whites alone. The plain words of the Declaration, not the hypocritical racial reservations of people like Jefferson, should govern our understanding of that seminal document he believed.

    Lincoln next identified the idea of “all men are created equal” as the fulcrum of the Civil War. He said “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” In other words, slave owners were willing to destroy the American nation to preserve inequality, while Lincoln was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of young men, and eventually even his own life, to win the contest to determine whether a nation “so dedicated” to the equality proposition “could long endure.”

    In 1863 the world’s kings, and emperors, and dictators were overjoyed to see the one great democracy seemingly tearing itself apart. With the destruction of American democracy would come the end of democratic movements worldwide. Lincoln knew this was their hope, he knew his own people were war weary and despondent. Resistance to the war was growing and cities like New York had been torn by anti-Draft Riots. In the face of this depressing scene, Lincoln poetically expanded the war aims of the Union. We would not simply restore the impure slaveholder democracy of the pre-war United States, but instead, he said, the end of the war and the victory over the slave power promised “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

    The beginnings of our modern freedoms for Americans who are not White Anglo Saxon Protestant Heterosexual Men can be discerned in that short speech given on that pile of the gory dead one hundred and fifty years ago today.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 19, 2013

      Thanks for sharing, Pat.

  • Brad Nov 20, 2013

    In Ronald White’s The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, the author notes that when one reads Lincoln, he’s best read if his speeches are read aloud. I think much of what Lincoln wrote was written with this in mind. One such speech that comes to mind was the Conkling letter.

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