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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
--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."