The Gettysburg Address

Fourscore 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. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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 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 this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Eight score years ago, the Gettysburg Address was delivered. It is arguably the most famous speech in American history, in large part due to its eloquence and brevity – 271 words and two-minutes. The address was part of a ceremony dedicating a portion of the battlefield for the nation’s first national cemetery. The goals of Abraham Lincoln’s speech were threefold – to encourage people to act in improving the nation, give meaning to the sacrifice of men who laid down their lives, and reunite the nation.

The significance of the message Lincoln conveyed to the American nation remains as powerful today as it was then. It has become a yardstick against which we can measure society. It calls us to a deeper, more profound sense of identity, as a “nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The task of living up to that identity is the challenge facing every generation.

The United States was a new kind of country with a different kind of political philosophy. Its formation was known as “the Great Experiment” because it ventured into new ground. No other nation at that time had a government where the people governed themselves based on the ideas of freedom, liberty, and all men being created equal.  No one knew if such a government could survive.

Our nation had been torn apart by the moral, power, and economic conflicts of slavery. Government by the people had disintegrated into a war among the people; ballots had been replaced with bullets. The Civil War was testing this great experiment. At stake was not simply lives, or money, or government control, but the very foundations upon which the United States was founded. Kings, dictators, and autocrats were watching. The world was watching. Were the nation to dissolve, then the world would question the idea of a country giving equality to the masses.

It is noteworthy that Lincoln honored both sides of those who fell at Gettysburg. He knew that to end a civil war, both sides, all combatants had to be respected.  He wanted the people of the South to come back. Most civil wars last for centuries, because the rancor and hatred are passed to the ensuing generations. Lincoln did not want that to happen.

The action of consecration, “to make holy,” isn’t done by the participants of the ceremony nor by words spoken.  It is done by those who gave the ultimate sacrifice at Gettysburg, and they did it for the generations of Americans who were not yet born. The speech addresses “the unfinished work” started by the devoted soldiers, the preservation of the Nation and its ideals of liberty and equality. The slain had already done their job. The living now had to finish the work, to keep the nation alive. Lincoln uses the word “resolve,” an action verb that reflects both mindset and motivation.

The Gettysburg Address resonates because it honors the dead by speaking to the living. It reminds us of the lofty ideals in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It calls on every generation to continue the work of previous generations. The nation our founders brought forth was not perfect.  Neither was it during the generation of the Civil War. Nor is it during our generation. However, each generation must continue the resolve of previous generations and to honor their work to form a more perfect union.

Lincoln’s call to continue the struggle of the men who died at Gettysburg is timeless. Today, we are not fighting to end slavery. However, we are fighting to preserve freedom and democracy in a world of terrorism and tyranny. We should be engaged in battle to preserve justice in relationships between our Nation’s citizens. The Gettysburg Address still carries its initial purpose of guiding people towards creating a democratic society, no matter what issues the Nation might face.

Nearly all the books and papers examining this famous and enduring speech either gloss over or completely miss the religious language, symbolism, and meaning of the Gettysburg Address. Although it contains no direct biblical quotations, it echoes the Bible with invoked biblical intonations, rhythms, phrases, and idioms. Sacred language and themes set a tone of solemnity, underscored the magnitude of the occasion, and emphasized the moral gravity of the message. The unifying theme of the address, woven throughout from beginning to end, is the conception, birth, death, and rebirth of the nation.

Lincoln grew up in the religious surroundings of a Baptist family. He had an insatiable appetite for reading and an inquisitive spiritual nature. He knew the King James Bible backward and forward. From the opening phrase, Lincoln put his audience in a biblical frame of mind with its Old-Testament style dating of the nation’s founding, “Four score and seven years ago.” This formulation resembles the psalmist’s familiar calculation, as rendered in the King James Bible. (Psalm 90:10).

“Our fathers brought forth . . . a new nation, conceived in Liberty.” Lincoln contrasted the birth of the United States of America with Mary’s deliverance of the Christ child. He even gave it fathers, our Founding Fathers. “Conceived” and “brought forth” are the words of both St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s gospels to describe a divine child who was “conceived” (Matthew 1:20-25; Luke 1:31; also Isaiah 7:14) and delivered (Luke 2:7) in the flesh (John 1:14). “Brought forth” calls to mind a theme of liberation, Moses’ liberation of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 3:12, 32:11; Deuteronomy 9:12, 26), equating it to the emancipation of slaves in America.

Lincoln’s choice of the word “struggled” in reference to a battle “in a great civil war” is particularly poignant. “Struggled” appears only once in the King James Bible in the context of another, more intimate civil war that pitted brother against brother – Esau and Jacob, the fathers of two nations, who “struggled together within” Rebekah’s womb (Genesis 25:22).

Lincoln connected the sacrificial bloodshed and death of the men on Gettysburg’s battlefields with the sacrificial bloodshed and death of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross, which made possible a new birth and new life for fallen mankind. The soldiers “gave their lives,” so others “might live.” The old nation corrupted by slavery died, giving hope for a new birth and new life for the Nation. Lincoln believed the nation had been born again, rededicated to the founding “proposition that all men are created equal.”

The Gettysburg Address is a timeless work and one of the greatest speeches ever uttered by a President.  It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s true. Those who govern today would do well to learn from Lincoln’s short, concise, and inspirational manner of getting an essential idea across to the people, all people.

We continue to have a great task ahead of us. Each of us might have a different perspective on that task. We can freely question our world, debate the issues, and live in a way that honors those around us, regardless of agreeing or disagreeing with them. In so doing, we accept the responsibilities of citizenship and undertake the hard work demanded, so that, in the words of Lincoln, “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.”

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