|Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1863, National Archives, Public Domain/Fair Use claimed|
150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln issued his best known speech, "The Gettysburg Address." It has become an iconic example of the man and power of his oratory. Although I think it is an amazing speech, I happen to be more partial to his second inaugural address. Still, today is the anniversary of the speech at the Soldiers Cemetery and I do want to pay it homage.
In honor of Lincoln's mastery of brevity, I will attempt in my own feeble way to keep this blog post shorter than my other ones. Therefore, I am going to defer any lengthy historical references to the battle that previous July or of the details of the speech. I do think it is proper to offer the speech in its entirety, all two minutes of it:
"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."
November 19, 1863
This is amazing to read. Without a doubt, Lincoln was the right man at the right time to issue these words. Nothing is wasted. It reminds me of the quote from Antoine de Saint-Euxupery, "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." There is nothing to remove from this speech. While Lincoln doubted if any words could dedicate this ground, he got it right. It's still right today.
As I read it, as I try to do every time this year, some new part of it stands out to me. This year it is the line, "...thus far so nobly advanced." Lincoln is paying tribute to those who fell at the battle. Whether at Little Round Top or repelling Pickett's Charge, those whose final resting place was to be Gettysburg had done their part. Lincoln honored what they did.
I also believe that Lincoln was using honesty as a currency, or more like a line of credit. He was saying to the nation, "These men buried before us made an installment payment on freedom. The next bill due is ours."
In perhaps a larger sense, Lincoln knew that the war itself would not right all with the nation. While that too would be a cause "nobly advanced" further, it was not the end of the line. More work would lie ahead.
It is why I find his second inaugural even more powerful. That might be heresy, especially on this day, but I offer this reason why: Lincoln used this address to offer a second volume to The Gettysburg Address. He carried forward the message of the noble advance to complete the task. It was a practical yet ambitious goal. Here is the last line of that speech on March 4, 1865:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
In a way, it was as if he was telling the nation, "That bill coming due I foretold at Gettysburg, here it is."
On this anniversary, it is good to recall the words of Lincoln. But for the bullet from Booth, that work might have gone on. The malice that became Reconstruction would have likely not come to pass had Lincoln lived. Instead, Lincoln's work ended. It was up to those who followed to follow his noble example. Unfortunately, they failed.
We all can ponder the words of Lincoln and determine how in our own way to decide how we can give our devotion to that unfinished work. We do not have to have the oratory of Lincoln or the courage of the 20th Maine to make that contribution. So long as we seek to make our own sincere efforts to a "just and lasting peace," then we can say (with satisfaction) we too nobly advanced that cause first mentioned 150 years ago.
Be well my friends,