As an undergraduate student, I once had the temerity to ask a Lincoln/Civil War scholar which of Lincoln’s numerous speeches should be considered his greatest. For a moment he looked piteously down at my lesser being, then smiled and suggested that, rather than pick one favorite, all good citizens should simply read, assimilate, and reflect upon all of them. Yikes!
OK, so I won’t admit to having a personal favorite. But for purposes of celebrating our nation’s birthday, I submit the Gettysburg Address as my entry. Because its 272 words so perfectly capture the spirit of America’s unique claims to moral greatness, as well as our recognition that we must continually work toward the perfection envisioned in the Declaration of Independence.
Although we’ve all heard and/or read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address since childhood, why not take a few minutes to read it again, simultaneously contemplating who we are as a nation and what image we think we should project to the rest of the world?
“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 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.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot 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 thy 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 the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
For nearly 150 years, folks have speculated as to what Abraham Lincoln’s position might be on this or that public policy issue du jour. The best response I’ve read to that question (“What would Lincoln do?”) was in a 1996 book of collected essays by James M. McPherson, titled “Drawn With The Sword.” In the 12th essay of the collection, titled “A New Birth of Freedom,” McPherson quotes “Senator George Norris when asked in the 1930s what Lincoln would do about the Depression, that ‘Lincoln would be just like me. He wouldn’t know what the hell to do.’”
But we do know what he would do about preserving and improving America’s commitment to liberty, equality, and self-government, because he told us his views and he accomplished them on behalf of the nation.
OK, so technically, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address wasn’t delivered on July 4 (he delivered it on November 19, 1863). But on the actual date of July 4, 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant received the surrender of the town of Vicksburg, MS, and the Confederate Army he had cornered there, and meanwhile General Robert E. Lee withdrew his defeated Confederate Army from Pennsylvania back to Virginia.
And with those two key victories (Gettysburg and Vicksburg) and a later victory that year at Chattanooga, TN, Lincoln’s commitment to preserve the Union, and more recently to end slavery, were beginning to look realistic.
So “Happy Fourth of July” everyone!
Patrick Teegarden, our chronicler of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, recommends the following to read: Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, by Garry Wills (1992, Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library); and, as cited above, Drawn With The Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, by James M. McPherson (1996, Oxford University Press). Teegarden can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.