Gettysburg: Commentary on a Long-Ago Delivered Short Speech Which its Deliverer Predicted Would Be “Little Note[d] nor Long Remember[ed]”
By Ken K. Gourdin
In keeping with my previously-stated tradition of doing something consistent with February American holidays so that those days take on more significance (however modest) than simply “another Monday off” (see http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/in-honor-of-mlk-jr/, last accessed today) today, I read President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In commemoration of the legacy which he and other patriots and statesmen have left to me, I offer the following commentary.
“Fourscore 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,” President Lincoln began. It is true that, when the United States of America was born, the degree to which this nation allowed relatively ordinary citizens to participate in the everyday processes of government was unprecedented. However, our concepts of liberty and equality have advanced over the years, and that advancement sometimes has been halting and painful. Sometimes it has required intervention by the courts, which have offered more expansive reinterpretations of those notions than our founders first envisioned.
Lincoln continued, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” Indeed, “that nation” very nearly did not endure. It was very nearly rent asunder by the conflict. As we have already noted, it took some time for the nation to, in the immortal words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal.” The cynical observer of the inequality engendered, for example, by Jim Crow laws in the South, likely would observe that, “Yes, it’s true that all men are created equal. It’s just that some men are created more equal than others.” It was only through a Voting Rights Act, a Civil Rights Act, court decisions ensuring equal access to public accommodations without regard to race, and similar measures that the vision of President Lincoln and Dr. King were able to be realized.
Lincoln continued, “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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, 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.” Indeed, we should pause on significant days throughout the year to remember the struggles of soldiers throughout history who have hallowed the ground on which they fought—we should pause on Independence Day, and Veterans Day, and Memorial Day; we should pause to remember those who fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and others. Whatever our feelings regarding the merits of any given conflict (or lack thereof), those who were willing to answer the call of their country deserve our respect. They go where they are sent, willingly and without complaint.
“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” Lincoln continued. The memorial at Gettysburg has ensured the continuing truth of the first clause of that statement. What President Lincoln never could have foreseen is that subsequent history thoroughly would ensure that the first clause of this statement would be clothed in a great deal of irony. President Lincoln is nearly universally regarded as one of the greatest American presidents in the history of the country. Just as the sacrifice of the soldiers who died on the battlefield at Gettysburg is memorialized by a monument there, President Lincoln also is memorialized by one of the most oft-visited memorials in our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C.
Lincoln continued, “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.” Indeed, we can dedicate ourselves to that great work by voting, by becoming (or remaining) politically active, by actively petitioning our local, state, and national governments for those measures which we, in good conscience and good faith, believe are best calculated to ensure good government. If we don’t raise our voices, then the work performed by soldiers at Gettysburg and on other battlefields throughout history forever remains unfinished. Lincoln further said, “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[.]” Indeed, the mundane processes of government take on an increased significance (and, at times, even a greater urgency) when considered in light of the blood that has been spilt and the other sacrifices that have been made so that we can have the opportunities to do the things we too often take for granted.
Lincoln’s next clause is, “[T]hat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” And again, the best way—indeed, perhaps the only way—to do that is to become active in the political process: to support measures and candidates we believe, in good conscience and good faith, are most consistent with good government—to stop taking the freedoms for which blood has been spilt, lives have been lost, and other lives have been changed forever, for granted. Sadly, inasmuch as we do take those freedoms for granted, all of those sacrifices have, indeed, been made in vain. Lincoln concludes, “[T]hat 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.” Every vote in a caucus, primary, or election; every e-mail or letter directed to a local, state, or national leader; every filing to run for office, is a step—a small one, to be sure, but a step nonetheless—in ensuring that Lincoln’s vision that government “by, for, and of the people” will not perish.
The degree of apathy and ignorance which seems to prevail among the American electorate stands in stark contrast to President Lincoln’s vision as expressed so eloquently in the Gettysburg Address. However tenuous our hold on that vision, may you and I do our part to ensure that it does not weaken further, and may we reach out to family and friends to ensure that they do likewise.