This week our country marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, to a crowd of about 15,000, at the consecration of a new national cemetery at Gettsyburg. On July 1-3 of that year, forces of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army and the Union Army of the Potomac, under the leadership of General George G. Meade, engaged in what would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Some 23,000 Union soldiers were killed (about 1/4 of the Union Army’s forces) and 28,000 Confederate soldiers were killed (more that 1/3 of Lee’s forces). After Lee’s forces retreated, apparently Jefferson Davis was offered a chance to resign, but he refused, thus prolonging the war.
According to the mythology, Lincoln wrote the address on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg. In actuality, Lincoln, who was not the main speaker on the program, wrote most of the speech before he left the White House, and finished it the night before the speech. Apparently Lincoln was not fond of making extemporaneous speeches, and worked on the remarks for almost two weeks.
Aside from the eloquence of the speech itself, what scholars point to as most noteworthy about the content is that Lincoln did not refer to the Constitution, but rather to the Declaration of Independence, as the statement of our national aspiration as Americans – the belief articulated by our Founding Fathers in the fundamental equality of all human beings. We remember, of course, that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation some ten months earlier, in January of 1863.
While the issue of legalized slavery was settled at that point, the reverberations of oppression and racial inequality continue to plague us to this day. Fully 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver perhaps the most soaring oratory this country has heard since the Gettysburg Address. Now, 50 years after Dr. King’s speech, and the March On Washington, we still struggle as a nation with the demons of racism and inequality, economic and social disparity. It is important for us to mark milestones like these, not only to remind ourselves of the aspirations behind them, but also to refocus on the work that still lies before us in order to realize those aspirations.
One of the things we Americans seem to need from whoever our president may be at any given time, is that he (she) possess the ability to move and inspire us to be better than we are, and to live up to our potential as a nation. A handful of our presidents actually have possessed the gift and ability to do that. But perhaps none has ever duplicated the extraordinary poetry of Abraham Lincoln. And so, now fully 150 years later, we remain in awe of the majesty and profundity of this 272-word masterpiece. . .