Today is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Tens of thousands of words have been written analyzing these 272 words from every perspective – contents, language, style, form, historical impact, you name it. I’d like to share three observations about the address as well as its present-day relevance.
Abraham Lincoln chose to ground his address not in the Constitution which codified the original sin of slavery in its content but in the Declaration of Independence with its promise of equality for all. “Four score and seven years ago” sets us firmly in 1776 and ties the battle at Gettysburg to the armed conflict of the Revolution. It speaks to the earlier, more philosophical document as the source of the American proposition, not the flawed and compromised Constitution.
Interestingly, Lincoln does not argue that the great cause of the Civil War is the continued union of the states. Rather, he takes the existence of a “nation”, not just a union of states, as a given. Up until that point in history, the United States had been perceived as primarily a union of individual entities without a specific national identity. The common phraseology of the day was “the United States are”. But Lincoln refuses that characterization and presents the United States as a nation, a single entity. He uses the word nation five times, reinforcing the concept of wholeness and unity as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. We were conceived as a nation. It is not to be debated or disputed. And, following the war, the common usage becomes “the United States is”.
In the final sentence (and there are only 10 sentences in the entire address), Lincoln affirms clearly and unequivocally the great cause of the Civil War, to grant a “new birth of freedom” to a unified nation. While Lincoln soft-pedaled emancipation as a cause of war at the beginning of the conflict for political reasons and even stepped back from full emancipation in the Emancipation Proclamation (freeing slaves only in those states in rebellion), here he gives full voice to the ultimate cause and purpose of the War. We need to be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that this nation . . . shall have a new birth of freedom.” There it is. He’s talking about freedom from the horrors and tyranny of slavery. That is the task remaining before us and the cause for which those at Gettysburg died. More broadly, I read this as an affirmation that it is a cause worth dying for because it is bigger than any individual. It is a sacrifice in the service of proving that a government built on freedom for all can endure.
And how is all that relevant today? After all, it’s been 150 years. The Civil War is long over. But is it?
I would suggest on this 150th anniversary that the great cause of the Civil War is one we still must fight for on a daily basis – the new birth of freedom for all of us – because daily we are bombarded by attempts to take away that freedom: denial of voting access particularly to the poor, elderly and minority populations; denial of choice in basic women’s health care to women in this country, especially the poor; corporate oppression in the form of low wages and insufficient benefits, restricting upward mobility; the control of the 1% over our elections and our elected officials; the very real slavery of human trafficking even in the United States; the invasion of our privacy by out-of-control government agencies. Every day in dozens of ways, we risk losing a piece of our birthright of freedom. And every day we have the opportunity to fight for freedom, oftentimes not for ourselves but for others who have smaller or weaker voices. It may not cost us our lives but it does require our sacrifice – our time, talent or treasure.
On this significant anniversary I urge all Americans to take the time to re-read the Gettysburg Address and to “take increased devotion” to the cause of a new birth of freedom for all Americans.
The original text of the Address appears below:
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.
*Two of the five copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handdo not include the words “under God”.