"What lessons should Americans today draw from the Gettysburg Address?"
By Merry Duggin
In November 1963, in honor of the 100th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, every student in Mr. Burden’s American history class in McAlester, Oklahoma, had the “honor” of entertaining their fellow students with their version of this historic speech. Mr. Lincoln delivered his address in approximately two minutes, but our renditions ranged from 1 to 5 minutes depending on the personality and speaking experience of the orator. Did you ever hear an Oklahoma drawl? Little did we note, nor long remember the speech. In fact, some may not have even understood it at the time. To us “Four score and seven” could easily have been referring to a football term, for all we knew. Only much later did we appreciate the words that we had memorized, and fast forward 50 years, our perspectives on their meaning have changed dramatically.
I recently visited the Gettysburg battlefield and found a new appreciation for what had occurred there in 1863. This battle, which was a crushing blow to the Confederacy, has been considered a turning point in the War Between the States. The Confederates led by General Robert E. Lee withdrew on July 4, a significant day of freedom to all Americans. The number of casualties on both the Union and Confederate sides was horrendous—51,000 killed, wounded, or missing. The small town of Gettysburg was left to clear the battlefield and dispose of the dead. Today the cemetery is beautiful, with shade trees and green grass all around, but in November 1863, the site was barren and scarred by war. President Lincoln was not the only speaker, but it is his simple, but profound statements that have withstood the test of time.
President Abraham Lincoln could not have known how his words would affect future generations, but his example of respect for those who were willing to go to war for a just cause echoes long past his lifetime. In 1863, the United States was barely 87 years old and sorely tested by factions within the federal government which had deeply divided views of economic and social mores. This young country, born in freedom and liberty, was so divided that some states felt they could not exist in the Union, and they drove the people to a civil war. President Lincoln proved that a humble man with intelligence, humility, ambition, a high sense of honor, and a sense of humor could not only become this nation’s leader, but he could see it through a devastating war, leading it in a moral fight to rid the country “where all men are created equal” of slavery. To protect, defend and save the Union was also very significant to him, and this speech is honoring those who gave their lives—the last full measure of devotion—for that cause.
Do we not ask our young people to step forward and risk their lives for our nation’s causes today? Fortunately we have many who volunteer to do our nation’s work and protect the majority from harm. We must remember that we stand on the shoulders of the sacrifices of our fathers and mothers and take heed that it is left to us to move our nation forward with “a new birth of freedom” for all. We should value and honor military service and help our soldiers to do the duties that we ask of them. We must come to their aid when they fall and carry them when they need help. We must honor them in death and continue to recognize that some noble causes are worth that sacrifice. We must not allow them to die in vain but continue to seek out the just and noble cause.
We must not allow our nation to ever again be pressed by those who seek to divide the country over economic, social and moral issues. There must be room to accommodate all of us by showing respect and equal freedom to those who have opinions that differ from others and by allowing each of us the opportunity to express those opinions without fear of reprisal or shame. The pendulum of government will swing too far one way and then reverse itself when it becomes apparent that it has gone too far. We should expect that mistakes will be made, but it is a self correcting mechanism.
We must strive to seek out Lincoln’s “unfinished work” to pursue. The “government of the people, by the people, for the people” cannot sustain itself unless good men and women step forward (of the people), elected by the constituents of their districts (by the people), to do the work of the government (for the people). In Lincoln’s day, only men could vote or be elected to office. Today all Americans, both men and women, have the right, privilege and responsibility to participate in strengthening our Union in whatever capacity they should choose. We must reach out and be inclusive, encourage those among us who feel not included, to participate in the great experiment called the United States of America.
After all, Lincoln would say that this nation is only fourscore and seven plus 151 years old. Under God.