19 June 2016

Lincoln at Gettysburg and Modern Effrontery

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.
Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863
On July 1-3 it will be the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles in what remains by far the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, a war that was both our darkest and our finest hour. It is a mark of the man that Lincoln spoke of the People and the Nation they comprised, not of the States; of the ideals upon which the Nation was founded by the People, and not of the imperfect realization of those ideals which precipitated the Civil War; of what the soldiers did, and of what we can and cannot do, but never of himself as President or Commander-in-Chief.  I know of only one other speech that is as great and as humble as this one. 

Amid the horror of civil war and slavery, of hatred and hard words, of death and oppression, Lincoln did not pray in the words of psalm 109 that the days of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee might be few, and that their widows and children might be homeless beggars. No. Not even in jest. For Lincoln, though not an especially religious man in a strict sense, would have known that to invoke God in service of a malicious jest is shameless blasphemy.  And Davis and Lee would have known this as well. Rather, Lincoln spoke of the meaning of devotion and sacrifice, and suggested that hope was not lost for America and the ideals of 'our fathers'. That the tarnished ideals may yet be clean. This hope did not rest on him, but upon the People. 

Where, as Lincoln might ask, are the better angels of our nature?