A Speech Etched into America’s Memory

Yesterday, November 19, was the 154th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most significant and poignant speeches in American history—and also one of the shortest.

The battle at Gettysburg had occurred in July of 1863, three days of some of the most awful warfare the nation has ever endured. It was particularly awful because those who died were all Americans, fighting one another. It took from July to November to clean up the battlefield of all the dead. The carnage practically defied description.

Abraham Lincoln went to Gettysburg to commemorate the victory by Union forces. He wasn’t even advertised as the primary speaker that day—the renowned orator Edward Everett had top billing. Yet no one recalls Everett’s words now. Lincoln’s concise two-minute address has come down to us as one of the most eloquent ever delivered. It doesn’t take long to read, so I offer it to you here:

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.

The photographer at the event figured he had time to make the changes necessary to the camera and still catch images of Lincoln’s speech, but he wasn’t prepared for one that short. The only photograph we have of that special occasion is one of Lincoln sitting down right after delivering his comments.

Lincoln’s only error in the speech was in saying that the world would not remember what was said there. At the time, newspapers mocked the president’s address, calling it embarrassing. Speakers were supposed to go on forever, thrilling their audiences with decorative flourishes of oratory. Lincoln instead opted for directness, simplicity, and heartfelt gratitude for those who died.

Most people don’t know that Lincoln was feeling ill at the time. It turned out he had contracted smallpox, although not a virulent strain. When I was last at the museum in Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, I noticed this plaque that I thought was a splendid example of Lincoln’s sense of humor:

The Civil War was a constant strain on Lincoln, yet he learned how to handle the heavy burden placed on him. Evidence is strong that the trials he suffered led him back to Christian faith. The Gettysburg Address and his subsequent Second Inaugural Address give testimony to that faith.

The Gettysburg Snub

A new mini-controversy is brewing over another action—make that an inaction—of President Obama’s. The 19th of this month is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The president has decided not to be in attendance to observe that historic event. Unlike 23 other presidents, he has chosen not to put in an appearance at the place where one of the most famous speeches in American history took place.

This has the citizens of Gettysburg and all others who are participating in the commemoration dismayed. “Why the snub?” they wonder. A short word to those who are distressed over Obama’s absence from the proceedings: don’t sweat it. The anniversary of Lincoln’s pithy and wise comments should be one of dignity and genuine appreciation. In my opinion, the presence of our current president at the event would only serve to degrade its historic significance. Neither he nor his wife have ever really been proud [in the right sense of the word] of their country. Why cheapen this commemoration with any insincere remarks he might choose to offer?

Abraham Lincoln--Gettysburg Address DrawingInstead, rejoice in his absence as you ponder anew the address that begins with those beguiling words, “Fourscore and seven years ago.” Listen attentively to Lincoln’s reminder that we are a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Recall his stirring vision that those who died on that battlefield would help the nation, under God, to experience a new birth of freedom. And dwell on that final thought, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Be grateful that, during an arduous civil war that could have destroyed this nation forever, we had a leader who knew how to lead. Further, be thankful that God gave us another chance to live up to our ideals.

And finally, pray that the president doesn’t change his mind and decide to show up after all. This should be a memorable occasion for all the right reasons. Undue attention to a man who doesn’t really care much about his own country’s history would only detract from the memory of all those who fought for the nation’s ideals and from the memory of the president who so clearly enunciated them.