150 years ago on November 19, 1863, Lincoln gave one of the shortest and best speeches ever given by an American political leader. It is known to history as the Gettysburg Address. It was more than a great speech; it was a fervent prayer for America and its prospect of being what it was meant to be. If America in the second decade of the 21st century has a prayer of being the nation Lincoln believed in, we must return to the Gettysburg Address and derive renewed dedication to the great task remaining before us.
“Let us then turn this government back into the channel in which the framers of the Constitution originally placed it.”
Abraham Lincoln –July 10, 1858 Speech at Chicago
“There are five known copies of the speech in Lincoln’s handwriting, each with a slightly different text, and named for the people who first received them: Nicolay, Hay, Everett, Bancroft and Bliss.” Due to contemporaneous publication in various newspapers some confusion has persisted regarding the authoritative text. Despite this the themes are conveyed by the language of the Bliss copy used in this essay. This is also the version on the Lincoln Memorial.
“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 seven and one half score more years have passed. The nation is no longer new, but its conception has not changed and the dedication of America and Americans to the proposition of equality has yet to completely triumph.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” The great civil war ended in a victory for the Union Lincoln led. Despite winning the war, the ideas and attitudes that launched and fueled it were not vanquished or banished. Bigotry, authoritarianism, and the noxious notion of Confederacy still animate many 21st century Americans. Rampant efforts are afoot to impede or impair the right of minorities, young people and the poor to vote. Various states have enacted legislation purportedly nullifying federal laws. Rigid, party-line voting has rendered Congress almost inoperable. Utterly misguided pseudo-patriots are in virtual rebellion against the federal government even if they hold elective office within it.
“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.” The federal government has been virtually transferred into an ongoing struggle and only the lack of cannon and rifle fire distinguish it from a “great battle-field.” Some people are giving their every waking hour so the nation might live. It is “altogether fitting and proper” that they do this and we need to rally round them. Obstructionism and relentless, reflexive partisanship has no place in government of, by, and for the people. As Lincoln asserted, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” This great task is now as it was in 1863, the ongoing perfection of the Union with justice, peace, security, prosperity and liberty for all Americans.
From the honored dead of Gettysburg and all who came after them it is vital that, “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.” It is easy to get distracted given the hectic nature of life in 21st century America. Furthermore, skilled people with large financial resources are actively attempting to divert attention from the genuine challenges and sensible responses available to us. These people seek to revive and manipulate superficial excuses for division rather than unity. They make plausible, but spurious, arguments that foster injustice rather than establishing justice. They disturb rather than ensure tranquility for something as venal as broadcast rating points. They launch military adventures that impair rather than provide for the common defense. They utilize fiscal policies that enrich the few rather than promoting the general welfare. They champion sectarian views and laws that deprive women, young people, and minority citizens of the blessings of liberty. In general, for their own advantage wealthy and powerful people have diverted the country from “the channel in which the framers of the Constitution originally placed it.”
It is imperative “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.” The challenge was not surmounted with the end of the Civil War. The need for “increased devotion to that cause” – the new birth of freedom – still remains as vital as when Lincoln first called for it in November 1863. Power and economic development have not fulfilled the quest Lincoln meant to launch. We must summon renewed dedication to the great purposes of the Constitution and the Republic it ordained and established. They are as yet unfulfilled and they are still imperiled. People of authentic goodwill must rise above the distractions of the present and the deceptions of the past. We must transcend the confines of our personal concerns and address the common good and shared aspirations of the nation. This is no small challenge; it is not an easy task. Despite the difficulty can any of us say it is harder that the challenge met so nobly by those who “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
On this 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s prayer for America, let us highly resolve that we will work together, march together, protest together, vote together and if need be go to jail together so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”