"What lessons should Americans today draw from the Gettysburg Address?"
By Christel Swasey
In 1863, at the close of the War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln stood to dedicate a graveyard at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. The spilled blood of over 51,000 men from that three-day battle, combined with the war's other battles, totaled over 600,000 and stood as a testimony: America's founding, "conceived in liberty," set up "four score and seven years" earlier, had been put to a terrible test.
Yes, America had been "conceived in liberty." But both the North and the South claimed to be fighting for liberty during the War Between the States. Whose interpretation of liberty would prevail, or should prevail?
The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, had said, “The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came, and now it must go on unless you acknowledge our right to self government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence.” He had said, "all we ask is to be let alone; that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms." Many Southerners had no slaves, did not believe in slavery, and were simply fighting for independence from the North --and its perceived or real abuses.
At the same time, the North said that its fight was for freedom, too-- for the freedom of human beings enslaved in the American South, and for the reclaiming of the Southern states that had seceded, back into the Union.
Long before Gettysburg, President Lincoln had said, "This government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free." He knew that both the Northern and the Southern interpretations of liberty could not exist within one nation. He had pointed out a decade earlier that "Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men," but he explained that though "We began by declaring that all men are created equal... now... we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of government'. These principles cannot stand together."
Lincoln had also explained that, "When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government; that is despotism."
At Gettysburg, when Lincoln said that our nation was "conceived in liberty" he could not have meant that anyone is at liberty to do anything at any time, including hurting or enslave another. He meant that any American's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of property ended when that property happened to be another person. He meant that one person's right to swing his fist ended where another's nose began. It would not be right for any group-- whether of a certain race, or of a certain wealth, or even of a larger numerical majority, to rule the land; only good and fair laws should rule. (If the majority ruled, for example, then 49% of the people would be at the mercy of 51% of the people, and the 49% would have no rights at all. This was why the founders warned against pure democracy, and set up a Constitution that guaranteed every citizen representative, but law-based, government. Article IV of the Constitution promises: "The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government.")
However, good and fair federal laws concerning slavery were absolutely missing in America. They didn't fully show up until after the war, with the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Lincoln saw that while the South would have been justified in seceding or seeking independence for many reasons, the freedom to continue to practice slavery was not one of them. He appealed to people's religious conscience, to a higher law than the then-current American law. Even though there wasn't yet any Emancipation Proclamation or federal law against slavery when the war began, Lincoln's conscience (and many others' consciences) felt slavery was immoral, especially in a country that was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
The Gettysburg Address was, in essence, a request. President Abraham Lincoln pleaded with the living to continue the "unfinished work" that the founders and the recently killed soldiers had "nobly advanced". He pleaded that the living would "resolve" that "these dead shall not have died in vain," and that the American nation would have a "new birth of freedom."
Today, we are still "engaged in a great civil war"-- not using bayonets and guns, but using the tools of our political process, and the resources of technology, media, persuasion and communication. We debate and fight over the same principles that caused our forefathers to eventually pick up arms.
Differing interpretations of liberty still cause contention in our land: Is the government's right to seek terrorists, or a person's right to privacy from unreasonable search and seizure, a more pressing freedom? Is the woman's right to choose to have an abortion, or the unborn American's right to be alive, a more pressing freedom? Is the homosexuals' right to marry and have children, or their future children's right to be raised by a father and a mother, a more pressing freedom? Is the state's supervision of education, or a teacher's creativity and autonomy in the classroom, a more pressing freedom? Is a publisher's right to produce child pornography, or a child's right to live in a society free of it, a more pressing freedom? Is the federal government's protection of the environment on disputed lands, or the state's right to its documented ownership of that land, a more pressing freedom? Is local autonomy or a highly regulated and standardized system, a more pressing cause?
Americans will always struggle with, and will have to fight in one way or another to define and preserve, the reality behind the word liberty. "Brave men, living and dead," have and do by their struggles "consecrate" this land, just as President Lincoln said, whether they are the Americans of 1863, of 1776 or of 2014.