In this season of anniversaries, this day is noteworthy: It is the 150th anniversary of the day in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
The speech was in the nature of a prayer at the dedication of a cemetery for those who had died in the Battle of Gettysburg four months before. It was devoid of bombast and ornamentation, and it was ignored by some amid the hoopla of the day. But in its rhetorical simplicity, modesty and dignity, it laid bare the higher purposes for which they had gathered at Gettysburg that day.
“Fourscore and seven years ago” — that is how he began, casting the occasion in biblical terms. And he proceeded to describe the genesis of a nation whose survival was still in doubt. Our forefathers, he said, “brought forth” a new nation “conceived” in liberty. It was a different kind of nation — “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That such a nation might survive was by no means certain. Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard and a Civil War scholar, wrote in The Washington Post on Monday that the Civil War was occurring at a time when despotism had reasserted itself in Europe and revolutions had been crushed. A nation dedicated to the idea of human equality was still a bold experiment.
Think of all the things that Lincoln didn’t do in his address. He didn’t attack the South. He did not clamor for abolition (he had already signed the Emancipation Proclamation). He did not delineate divisions. He did not issue moralistic denunciations.
Instead, he cast his own role in diminished terms. They were there to dedicate the cemetery, but in a larger sense, he said, “we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Rather, it was for us, the living, to draw increased devotion to that cause for which they died — “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.”
That government may well have perished. As Faust noted, everyone expected that the war would end quickly. Instead, its toll grew like a nightmarish flood of death over the course of four years. For the North to press its cause, the people of the Union needed to be persuaded of its purposes. Lincoln’s clear thinking and eloquent rhetoric were instrumental in describing Union purposes.
He had described his thinking in his 1861 address to Congress when he said the “whole family of man” was interested in the question of whether a free government could survive. He said the war was “essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
A democratic government based on the principles of equality might achieve those aims, but that form of government was then facing its severest test.
The Gettysburg Address has been described as a founding document of the nation’s rebirth, partly because it applied the principles of equality in the Declaration of Independence to questions that had been unresolved in the Constitution. The Constitution at the founding had embraced slavery. The principles of the Gettysburg Address, preserved by means of battlefield victories, produced the constitutional amendments that ended slavery and enshrined unalienable principles of equality.
And yet as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, it was “unfinished work.” It is still unfinished. The unfettered start, the fair chance, equality before the law are always threatened by those who would create fetters and compromise equality. As Lincoln told us, it is fitting and proper to rededicate ourselves to the cause for which so many have fallen.
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