149 years ago this Monday (November 19th), a government officer performed an official duty. He was asked to formalize the dedication of a particular piece of Federal land. In the invitation to this official, he was asked to offer "...a few appropriate remarks." The main oration, a formal speech of greater length would be offered by another. The government official was Abraham Lincoln. The plot of land was the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg. His ten lines of prose, a few minutes in length, became known as the Gettysburg Address. That speech has become vested in our nation's history. Here it is in its entirety:
"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."
(Public Domain photos of Lincoln)
Last night, I took my 14-year-old to see the movie Lincoln. It is a great movie and if you've got kids past grade school (there are some graphic battlefield scenes) take them. There is a lot to discuss on the way home, including how it was that the continuation of slavery was even open to debate. Not withstanding the "Hollywoodization" of the story, it still is time well-spent. Here is the link to the movie:
In the beginning of the movie, the address is featured in a interesting and unexpected way. Two years after the speech, it was popular with many and over time, its popularity has only grown and with good reason. It is a part of our American history. It has even found a place in our not-so-distant pop culture. ##The iconic opening of "Four score and seven years ago," was spoofed in the "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" movie, where President Lincoln was brought back in time declared, "Four score and seven minutes ago, we, your forefather, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure conceived by our new friend, Bill..and Ted, These two great gentlemen are dedicated to aproportion which was true in my time, just as it's true today. Be excellent to each other..."
One could take offense to this clearly comedic use of the likes and words of our beloved 16th President. However, I would offer that Mr. Lincoln would likely laugh loudly at the reference. Considering how he was pillaged in the press, this would be deemed an act of no ill will, if not affection. In any event, it shows the staying power of this speech.
It is a terrific speech. A few years back, I was in Clinton, Iowa for court in my private practice. I noticed that this speech was displayed in the iron sign often seen dedicating historical venues. Here in a place where speeding tickets, divorces and on occasion more serious matters are deciding, routine in their own way, is a testament to something not routine. Even though I wanted to get home I remember pausing to read it and marveled at it.
Lincoln was an orator and a statesman. Yet he was also the supreme authority of the U.S. military. The article below from the January 2009 Smithsonian online magazine by James McPherson discusses Lincoln as this wartime leader. It is a terrific read and discusses how Lincoln determined the national war strategy. He committed to it, knowing how heavy the cost would be in lives. He then sought out generals who would execute it.
Lincoln understood that in order for the United States to not "...perish from the earth...," and to finish, "...the great task remaining before us..." he would have to win the war. I suspect that when he made those comments in November, 1863 he knew, he was certain, the war would drag on. It would continue to create rows of crosses and grieving mothers. Still, he was committed to this cause and with his short address committed the rest of the nation. It truly was a few appropriate remarks.
Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving, especially to anyone reading this far from home.