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The Gettysburg Address

The 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address offers us the opportunity to consider the real significance of what was said. It is more than just a moving, well-written, patriotic speech limited to the needs of the occasion. It presents a point in time when the ideals of America were, by necessity, mindfully re-articulated and renewed, as never before or since.
    This was no accident. Abraham Lincoln was the last of the Age of Enlightenment presidents. He may have been the greatest of them as well. His simple words touched the conscience of the people of liberty, who had long neglected their responsibilities to freedom, equality and the greater good. His words touch us still.
The sad theater of a deadly battle set the stage for its reception. In the dreadful, on-going shock of incredible tragedy, our national conscience needed to recognize the seriousness of our own ideals. The introduction is familiar to us all.

"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."

His words remind us of a legacy that born during the early conception of the United States, a vision of a new world based on ideals expressing the highest aspirations of human conscience. These were principles meant to define our national character - a significant leap forward in the progress of government and social development.

"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 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."

President Lincoln recognized, and called attention to, the solemn moment of this battlefield honorarium. He recognized another legacy of blood meant to pay for the blessings and burdens that liberty and equality demand. These ideals do not exist on their own. Only people can give them life, and only in the form of their everyday virtue. Tens of thousands of soldiers died in the Battle of Gettysburg. They died for ideals and for the unity of the nation that we arrogantly overlook in today's obsession for wealth, celebrity and uncompromising, partisan advantage.
    Back in 2001, the destruction of the Twin Towers presented us with similar reflection. The murder of thousands reminded us of those ideals, at least for a passing moment, but the lessons were not given their proper due. We failed to be sufficiently inspired, slinking back into close-minded partisanship and a diluted sense of freedom.

"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. 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

The real message of the Gettysburg address was here articulated for all posterity. It was an invocation of virtue and conscience designed to pull the nation back on course. "It is up to us, the living," you and me, to complete the work that these soldiers died for, that our founders worked so hard to make possible, and that the tread of Western civilization has steadily aimed, despite numerous setbacks. We are all ready to praise those before us. But "we cannot consecrate" what has already been consecrated by the past,. The only ground we can and should consecrate is the ground we stand on. We do that through the lives that we live and the virtues that we uphold.
    Lincoln now belongs to the ages - but his work remains unfinished. This is no small matter. It falls upon us to complete that work. It calls us to adhere to those virtues that make us most human and most humane in our daily interactions. It calls us to act singly and in concert to make that world of virtue more than just a dream. It calls us to put trivial concerns aside now and then for the concerns of the greater good, and break the habitual vice of small, uninspired thinking.
    It is possible for us, as a people, and as a world responsible for its own future, to be as great as we aim to be. But it takes effort and commitment. It takes vision and real patriotic fervor - patriotic in the sense of devoting our lives to our common ideals. We owe it to all those who proceeded us to continue what they started. We owe it to all those who follow that they might carry this work to its completion - so that the vision we uphold and long have cherished "shall not perish from the earth."


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