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The Gettysburg Address, remembered PDF Print
Saturday, November 23, 2013 9:00 PM


There are two paintings beside the desk in my office. One is of George Washington, the man who helped establish the Union. The other is of Abraham Lincoln, the man who saved it.

One hundred and fifty years ago — or seven score and 10 years, as he might have put it—Abraham Lincoln stood on a wind-swept battlefield at a tiny railroad crossing in southern Pennsylvania. He was not the featured speaker that day. That honor fell to Edward Everett. Everett’s speech would last two hours; his first sentence was more than seventy words long.

Lincoln had come to dedicate a cemetery, a burial ground for the soldiers who only a few months before had fought outside of a town called Gettysburg. The Civil War was two years old then, and though it would rage for another two more, there was a sense that the tide had turned, that the war would end with the Union preserved, albeit after many thousands more lives were sacrificed. And so while Lincoln was there ostensibly to set aside a final resting place for those who had died in battle, his true purpose was even greater than that.

Part of the genius of the Founders was that they were able to look beyond their own times and their own struggles to see that the colonies, united together and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” could change the world. But that Union, with that goal, was a work in progress. As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has said, it was not perfect, but it was perfectible. It was the striving for that perfection—the perfection of freedom—that was the great task Lincoln spoke of.

But Lincoln knew something else, too. He had set out to save the Union. In this, he had failed. At least, he had failed to save the Union as it had existed before. Change was inevitable. “A new birth of freedom” was needed. And only by rededicating ourselves to that central principle at the heart of the Declaration of Independence—that all people are born free—could our nation endure.

We still hear Lincoln’s call today. The work of which he spoke is still unfinished. Liberty is our goal, freedom our watchword. Sometimes we come up short. Sometimes we don’t live up to our own ideals. But though we stumble, we will not fall.

Lincoln sometimes got things wrong, too. The world will never forget the sacrifices made at Gettysburg, but neither will they forget the words that Lincoln spoke there. The Gettysburg Address is a founding document. It ranks alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as a cornerstone of our nation. Today we honor it, and we honor Abraham Lincoln.

But we must do more than remember. One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, we must once again rededicate ourselves towards achieving what those honored dead throughout the centuries have been willing to give their lives to accomplish—“that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”



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