Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address 150 Years Ago Today

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 battle-field 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 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.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

Photos of the very ceremony 150 years ago today where Lincoln spoke these words of dedication for the new military cemetery at the Battlefield of Gettysburg.

A detail from the photo above; most scholars identify the man seated in the center facing us as Lincoln just moments after he delivered the Address.

As Gary Wills pointed out in his book on the Gettysburg Address, this speech revived and renewed the original revolutionary promise of the Declaration of Independence, and transformed that document from a historic relic into a binding contract.  The USA rededicates itself to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," and to the idea that "All Men Are Created Equal."  Slavery is purged from the land in blood and fire, and out of those ashes shall come a new birth of freedom for all people.

The historian James McPherson pointed out that in 1863 the rest of the world looked more like the Confederacy than the North.  Most of the world was hierarchical societies dependent on some form of indentured labor, and where the ruling class governed primarily for its own benefit and preservation.  Most of the rest of the world was still agrarian with the land divided up into large estates and the farmers who worked them were mostly tenants.  The industrial North with its cities and independent farms was the exception.  The Declaration of Independence and other founding documents of the USA were considered incendiary literature and banned in most of Europe and Asia.  The very idea of "government of the people, by the people, for the people" was too radical and dangerous to even consider.

In these angry bitter days where selfishness and tribal loyalty trumps national loyalty, let us remember that slavery could not have been eradicated from North America without the preservation of the Union.  There is no USA without all of its citizens.  If one group claims to be the "real Americans" and imply or declare that all the others are imposters, then the nation conceived in liberty will not long endure.  As we demand to secede from our cities, counties, states, and country, let's ask ourselves, do we really want to leave to future generations a chaos where freedom depends on aggression, where everyone else is an enemy and "to the victor go the spoils"; or do we want to leave behind a nation of fellow citizens, neighbors, where freedom and dignity are guaranteed by equal justice under law?


Gary Wills on the Gettysburg Address writing for The Atlantic yesterday.

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