Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 speech memorializing the soldiers who were wounded, killed or missing from the battle of the same name which had happened there only five months before. There were 51,000 casualties, Union and Confederate alike. It had been the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
At Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania today, they’re hosting a full schedule of dedication day events, including a parade, night time luminaries, a wreath laying in the cemetery, a graveside salute to the U.S. Colored Troops, re-enactors and speakers like Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson. Taps will be played.
LIncoln wasn’t even the keynote speaker that day. It was Edward Everett, former Secretary of State and governor of Massachusetts. He talked for two hours. Lincoln’s speech–both ridiculed and praised in the country’s newspapers, much like modern presidents’ are now–was only two minutes long.
I am in awe of the Gettysburg Address. Have been since I first read it as an elementary schooler, then years later as a newlywed, standing before that huge wall of marble, the whole memorial oddly silent. Often praised mainly for its brevity, the speech is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. There are several drafts of the speech, three of which Lincoln gave to his secretaries, and to Edward Everett. Here’s the copy as it’s shown on the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.:
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 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 • 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 •
Yes, its brevity is beautiful. Remarkable, even, especially for a time when to be a politician was to be a real orator, when most speeches would be considered incredibly long-winded in our current age of impatience. Lincoln’s delivery was considered all-business, matter-of-fact. He read the speech from the piece of paper upon which it’d been written.
I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to have been him, standing there on hallowed–and it would be hallowed, whether Lincoln wanted it to be or not–ground. I can’t fathom being charged with preserving a Union literally been torn apart, burnt and sundered, wet with its citizens’ blood–let alone asked to honor the dead for the entire country. But he did more than honor the dead: he spoke of the “unfinished work” yet to be done. He didn’t plead with his audience and with the nation to preserve only what was. Instead, he spoke of a “new birth of freedom.”
I’m not immune to the frustrations of so many protesting our current government and its leaders. I do, however, grow inordinately frustrated–angry, really–when I hear comparisons of the current situation to moments and leaders like these, like the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, of the Revolutionary War and the Sons of Liberty. It makes me want to throw a history book at the television set, wishing that it’d warp through the screen and bonk one of those protesters on the head. Hard.
They are not the same. And elevating frustration over tax laws or health care to these great movements, to our country’s greatest and most tragic endeavors, is a shameful thing.
That’s my soapbox stance for the day. What I’m taking from the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address today is this: I will honor those dead and those that followed, give thanks for their “last full measure of devotion.” And remember that there is, as Lincoln said, “unfinished work” still to be done.
Because I’m an American citizen. So that’s on me.