"What lessons should Americans today draw from the Gettysburg Address?"
By Cevin Carr
It was a cold, windy November day, but Lisa Castro felt warm, huddled in her coat. She was one of five thousand who had braved the weather to attend the ceremony at Gettysburg National Military Park commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, last November 19th. But Lisa was there for something more than to celebrate the famous speech: she was there to take the oath of allegiance, making her one of the newest citizens of the country whose destiny was shaped on the battlefield 150 years earlier.
In a very real sense, Lisa is symbolic of what the Gettysburg Address is all about. A native of Congo, the 37-year old mother joined 15 other immigrants who were sworn in by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the end of the ceremony. The sixteen were chosen as an extra tribute to the sixteenth president, who made it all possible. In all likelihood, if Lisa had come to the United States 150 years ago it would have been as a slave. Today she can enjoy the full blessings of liberty afforded by citizenship in this great country. "This feeling of having the freedom and ability to accomplish anything we can in our lives, it's very exciting," Lisa said, glancing at her one-year old daughter asleep in the bassinet next to her. Lisa recognized the lesson that all of us Americans today can draw from the Gettysburg Address: the importance of freedom and equality.
When the Civil War began, many claimed that the conflict was all about preserving the union by bringing the secessionist states back under the sovereign control of the nation. But really it was about freedom—freedom from slavery, that “peculiar institution” that had haunted our country from its inception. Lincoln was referencing the Declaration of Independence when he open his speech “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.” All men are created equal. The primary author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers wished to abolish slavery with the birth this new nation, but they recognized that for this infant country to survive, political compromise was necessary. It would have to be left for another generation. Lincoln believed the Civil War was a continuation of that process toward equality and freedom. How could there be true equality when the law allowed for possession of one man by another man, when a black man counted as only 3/5ths of a man in our republic? Through the Emancipation Proclamation and Union victory, Lincoln achieved equality under the law for over three million freed slaves in the United States.
Have we achieved the equality of opportunity that freedom promised? No, not entirely, but the Civil War was an important first step—a “new birth of freedom.” A freedom that would continue to be nurtured by such great men as Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evars, and others who “so nobly advanced” the “unfinished work” of those who gave their lives at Gettysburg, those who gave “the last full measure of devotion.” And it is a work that must be carried on today. “It is for us the living . . . to be . . . dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” To be dedicated to the cause of freedom and the promotion of equality. We believe all men are created equal, but do we act to ensure that they are all treated equally? Are all citizens in our country allowed access to the “blessings of liberty” as promised in the Constitution? This is the cause to which we must remain dedicated today. Are we acting to ensure that all children are given access to quality education? Are we acting to ensure that willing workers are given fair access to jobs? Are we acting to ensure that all are given fair access to housing, food, and medical care? Are we tolerant of others’ opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles? Remember that ours is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The government is here to serve us, and we are here to serve one other. The government and its people together—this was the vision of Abraham Lincoln.
When Lisa Castro stood before Justice Scalia on November 19th, she joined immigrants from 13 countries in swearing their allegiance to the same country for which more than 40,000 soldiers died or were injured at Gettysburg. These sixteen people joined the more than 300 million Americans today who believe in the promise of a country based on the precepts of freedom and equality. It remains for all of us to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that the promised opportunities of freedom remain within Lisa’s grasp, and that those opportunities are even greater for her daughter Abigail and our children—that the “new birth of freedom” continues to grow “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”