Yes, President Barack Obama deserves some criticism for not attending celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. You can’t spend as much time as this president has over the years identifying with Lincoln without having to deal with questions about why you refuse to attend the sesquicentennial of the most important speech in American history. One of the more absurd arguments (not surprisingly) comes from a FOX News interview with a Wall Street Journal columnist, who actually argues that given the president’s popularity right now it was probably the right decision not to attend. Participation would have just added coal to the fire.
It would be interesting to have poll numbers for Lincoln’s popularity in November 1863. If we follow this argument to it logical conclusion, it is likely that Lincoln himself should have stayed away from Gettysburg altogether. Can you imagine a president so unpopular and still have the nerve to show up at a battlefield in the middle of a civil war to dedicate a new cemetery? Continue reading
We would do well to remember that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered at the height of a civil war, whose outcome was far from decided. I am reminded of this after having read Carole Emberton’s thoughtful editorial in The Morning News:
Although Lincoln’s prose is magisterial, its might depended in no small part on the ability of the Union Army to achieve battlefield victories in 1864 and 1865. In this case, the pen was only as powerful as the sword.
Lincoln issued a rallying cry on the Gettysburg battlefield in November 1863:
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…
The “unfinished work” that Lincoln referred to was begun voluntarily in 1861 when the government and tens of thousands of citizens chose to end the rebellion militarily. Lincoln and others had every reason to doubt as to whether the nation would find the strength in 1863 and beyond to see the “great task” to its successful conclusion? The outcome would ultimately determine whether the dead had indeed “died in vain.”
Is it possible for Americans today to appreciate the sense of uncertainty that hung over the yet-to-be completed cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863 given how disconnected we are from the sacrifices of so many of our military men and women over the past ten years?
To what extent does Lincoln’s hard truth apply to our own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did these men and women die in vain? Perhaps we shouldn’t look too closely.
Ultimately, Lincoln’s words serve as a reminder of the responsibility of every citizen when our nation utilizes its military and places our fellow Americans in harm’s way.
I posted this video a few years ago, but it seems fitting to do so again. Enjoy.
We 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.”
Rumors of a merger between the two museums have been in the air for the past few months, but today it’s official. The Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center will join forces to create one new museum on the grounds at Tredegar, along the James River. No one who has followed the problems plaguing the MOC over the past few years will be surprised by this decision. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Christy Coleman and Waite Rawls as public historians and as caretakers of Richmond’s rich Civil War past. With the help of individuals like Ed Ayers and others, Richmond is guaranteed a respectable and attractive new addition to its museum landscape. Continue reading