Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most important speech in American history. It was notoriously short, 10 sentences, two minutes long, and when he gave it he was standing on a muddy field, coming down with a bout of smallpox. Glory hallelujah was far from the horizon. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It was 150 years ago on Tuesday November 19th and we are here, and we note and we remember.
Gettysburg was in fact the worst of the battles, the most killed of the whole murderous war, and it became the ground into which not just the soldiers, but the war would be laid to rest, a final resting place that is altogether fitting and proper. Gettysburg was a speech about resurrection, a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition, and now given a new birth in freedom. It is a story of redemption and salvation, for the soldiers, for the nation, for we the people, and in that it is the essential American story, a metanarrative of resounding power and meaning. The southern states were able to secede from the Union in 1861 because regional and state identities were stronger than the national. Being a Virginian was more important to Robert E. Lee than being an American, he told Lincoln that when the president asked him to command the Union Army.
But at Gettysburg, it was this nation, the one to which was given the last full measure of devotion, and it was this government, of the people, by the people and for the people, that shall not perish from the earth. The first national cemetery was created for the state artillerymen and cavalry riders who gave their lives that that nation may live. A national identity as Americans, for north, south, black and white, began at Gettysburg and was consolidated at Appomattox Court House.
On the 50th anniversary of the dedication in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, the first southerner elected president since the war, spoke to more than 53,000 war veterans who had been transported, housed and fed at government expense for the occasion. Wilson was about to watch over a slaughter of his own generation, in the mud of another continent. On the 75th anniversary in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Monument at Gettysburg, before 8,000 surviving veterans of the war. He too was about to oversee massive death and destruction. The 100th anniversary in 1963 fell in the heat of the civil rights movement, months after Medgar Evers was murdered and Martin Luther King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial about his dream. President John F. Kennedy did not attend, instead, Governor George Wallace, straight from his University of Alabama doorway defiance, grabbed the press attention. No one missed the bitter irony that 100 years after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans were still fighting and dying for their most basic rights as American citizens.
Here we are, 150 years down that bloody, hard-fought road, as fractious and divided as ever, but Americans all. The South has swallowed its lethal pride and changed its racist ways, for the most part, and the North has opened doors it used to slam shut. Moving on from the ugliness of old habits and dark history has not been easy for anyone. Righteousness does not grace the weak and the lazy. So 150 years from Gettysburg, almost 50 years from Selma, we would like to take a measure of the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. Lincoln had faith in his fellow citizens, and however awkwardly and unevenly, we did take up the great task remaining before us to build one nation of many people, with justice for all.
President Barack Obama, a man of African descent twice elected to the White House, has the opportunity to bring the nation together to commemorate this road we have traveled, from Gettysburg forward. There is no one better than he to take increased devotion to this cause. The pain of past division can both soothe and warn against present divisiveness, striking those mystic chords of memory of which Lincoln was so fond. President Obama has stood on Lincoln’s shoulders and borrowed his rhetoric and continued his mission of taking on what is difficult, but necessary to do. Watching him speak at Gettysburg would be a moment of validation for us all, a synchronicity of values and courage meeting history and opportunity.
I hope he will reconsider his decision not to go to Gettysburg. The rest of us will be there, if only in spirit.Posted by: Ellen Hampton