I got this interesting piece from my friend, Edward Bear:
It was 150 years ago today, November 19, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to deliver a short address. There was a newly created Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg that had been the scene of mass slaughter between the Union soldiers of the North and the Confederate soldiers of the South just four and a half months earlier. The president went there to offer these reflections on its meaning:
"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
Prof. Allen Guelzo writes that Lincoln's brief speech was the president's call to his fellow countrymen to "Have Faith in Democracy." The last sentence in Guelzo's article expresses it: "The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today."
This is an excerpted version of Professor Guelzo's article that appeared the other day in the New York Times. Best wishes, E.Bear
No single American utterance has had the staying power, or commanded the respect and reverence, accorded the Gettysburg Address. It has been engraved (on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial), translated (in a book devoted to nothing but translations of the address), and analyzed in at least nine book-length critical studies over the last century.
The address is also memorable because, frankly, it is short on length, too, enough to be easily memorized. Lincoln had been invited to deliver only “a few appropriate remarks” as a kind of benediction.
Lincoln’s strong suit was his capacity to capture an idea in the fewest and clearest words possible. So, in the address, he describes the past and what it did (create a republic of equal citizens), then relates what the people at the ceremonies are doing in the present (dedicating a cemetery), and then moves to what they are to do for the future (dedicate themselves to the same principles the soldiers were dedicated to).
Yet, for all of its famous brevity, the Gettysburg Address is not so simple or compact as it seems. It may be only 270 words long, but those words are woven into 10 complicated sentences — all more cumbersome to parse on the page than to hear in the open. And Lincoln does not mind throwing compactness to the wind when he wants to make a lilting impression on the ear. In fact, the well-known repetitive triplets — “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people”
The address is less like an oration, and more like that oldest of American genres, the Puritan jeremiad, the public sermon that warned our forebears of their sins but also offered them a path to redemption. The three-part, past-present-future movement in the address matches the same movement in the jeremiad, and like it, the address contains both a word of warning and a promise of blessing.
The warning Lincoln issues is his admission that the Civil War was testing whether or not democracies are inherently unstable — “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Today, many take democracy for granted as the endpoint of political development. But it did not look that way in 1863. The French Revolution, which promised to be the American Revolution’s beachhead in Europe, swiftly circled downward in the Reign of Terror and then the tyranny of Bonaparte; democratic uprisings in Spain in 1820, in Russia in 1825, in France in 1830 and across Europe in 1848 were crushed by newly renascent monarchies.
The outbreak of the American Civil War only gave the monarchs further reason to rejoice. The survival of the American democracy had been a thorn in their royal sides, unsettling their downtrodden peoples with dreams of self-government. That this same troublesome democracy would, in 1861, obligingly proceed to blow its own political brains out — and do it in defense of the virtues of human slavery — gave the monarchs no end of delight.
Lincoln’s task at Gettysburg was to persuade his hearers, on the evidence offered by three days of battle, that democracy’s sun had not set after all. Gettysburg was not only a victory, but a victory won with the Union Army’s back to the wall, and its news came, appropriately, on July 4.
Looking out over the semicircular rows of graves, Lincoln saw in them a transcendence that few people, then or now, have been willing to concede to liberal democracy. And he saw something all could borrow, a renewed dedication to popular self-government, “that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion.” Like the jeremiad, it would point toward a renewal, a new birth, not of freedom from sin, but political freedom.
The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.
Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”