Lincoln’s Masterpiece

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln travelled to Pennsylvania to give a speech to various people connected with the Union victory at Gettysburg and the subsequent dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery. This being the Civil War, many of the `connected’ were relatives of fallen soldiers.

The speech, listed below, goes well beyond this particular battle and the dedication of the cemetery. Lincoln took the opportunity to revisit the core principles of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. For the first time, he clarified that the war, to him, was not only about secession, slavery and the survival of the union, but about the very principles of human equality. His speech opens

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.

No doubt Lincoln had realized that in the 80 or so years since the Declaration, the founding principles were perhaps less clear than before. Nuances fade, and the sense of importance fades. So he stood in a place where thousands of young men had perished, and he spoke to an audience consisting in large part of their mothers and fathers, and he said, this war has to continue. What we started here, with our new sovereign state, was only a dream before: a whole society committed first and foremost to equality, to fairness, to freedom. Is it possible such a society can last? We must make it possible. We must last:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

He goes on to say that he’s only talking; the real heroes are buried there. This is for the benefit of the families. And then, to me, a closing sentiment that feels tragic:

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….

Why does it feel tragic to me? Well that’s going to require several posts. But, basically, I think they did die in vain. But, setting that aside for now, consider a man–a great man–who we know to have been as compassionate as historical records can express. This man had such a profound belief in our founding principles, he sentenced thousands of young soldiers to death. Granted, most of our presidents do that. But Lincoln knew what was worth fighting for.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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.