One hundred and fifty years ago — on Thursday, Nov. 19, 1863 — Abraham Lincoln dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg. At the rail station where he had arrived the evening before just as darkness fell, coffins were still stacked for completing the reburials — the soldiers' initial crude graves had been dug in haste in the stifling summer heat after the battle. The president would speak for three minutes, say 272 words in his reedy twang that blended Indiana youth and Kentucky birth, and give the most famous speech in American history. It changed us as a people.
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 whetherthat 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.
In a speech this month at the Heritage Foundation, Allen Guelzo, director of Civil War era studies at Gettysburg College and author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, beseeches us to listen to Lincoln's words in the context of 1863 to better understand what they meant then — and today. Watch his full talk at tinyurl.com/tbtimes-gettysburg2. Here's an excerpt.
We do not see Lincoln's subject, the survival of democracy, as Lincoln saw it. ... For Lincoln, democracy was an isolated and beleaguered island in a world dominated by monarchies, tyrants and status. … The greatness we have not suspected in the (Gettysburg) Address lies in its humility, in its reminder that the question of democracy's survival rested ultimately not in the hands of czars, but in the hands of ordinary citizens in uniform who saw something in democracy worth dying for. ... What we needed and got so memorably from Lincoln was that reminder. We could use it again today.
In an article in the Atlantic adapted from his
book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, professor Garry Wills has argued that Lincoln reimagined both the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Read the Atlantic article in full at tinyurl.com/tbtimes-gettysburg1. Here's an excerpt.
In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg
Lincoln wove a spell that has not yet been broken — he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma. Lincoln not only presented the Declaration of Independence in a new light, as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution. … What had been mere theory … that the nation preceded the states, in time and importance — now became a lived reality of the American tradition. …Thus Abraham Lincoln (also) changed the way people thought about the Constitution. … The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit (and) it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it.