November 19, 2007

Many young people, including today’s students and those of us in our younger days, have been at times required to memorize the Gettysburg Address. It’s beautiful, profound . . . and brief, only 272 words. But being intent on memorizing it line by line, or reading a document that you’ve heard enough to make it seem familiar, may not allow us to always fully grasp the provocative nature of the message.

As a humble layperson, I have examined some of the elements and derivatives of the address. In doing so, I kept in mind that Abraham Lincoln was a man of deep thought and mood, of great sensitivity, and a scholar and believer of the Bible. He was also a great historian of the founding of our nation.

He began the speech, “Four score and seven years ago.” Where would he get such a poetic sounding term? From the Bible, a book Lincoln studied his entire life. Psalm 90:10 says, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years.” Fourscore is 80 years.

So “fourscore and seven years ago” would have been what date? Abraham Lincoln was referring to 1776, the date we declared independence from tyranny.

He goes on to say “our fathers,” not our forefathers. Today we’re more accustomed to saying forefathers. Why didn’t he? Because Lincoln’s father was born during the Revolution. In fact, Lincoln’s father was eleven years old when George Washington took the oath of office. It is very conceivable that there were citizens of the time who had seen both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, or at least lived during their terms in office. It demonstrates the short time frame between the creation of this nation and its Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was determined this nation would not dissolve under his watch.

“A new nation conceived in Liberty.” Liberty was sacred to Lincoln. When Lincoln rewrote his speech, so that there would be copies, he wrote Liberty with a capital “L.” I know this by having seen with my own eyes the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own handwriting displayed on the desk at the White House where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation giving liberty and freedom to slaves.

In fact, in 1861, he said in a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, “. . . if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle [liberty], . . . I would rather be assassinated on the spot than surrender it.” One wonders if he had a premonition of his fate.

“And dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Remember he’s referring to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence where it states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” There was no qualification as to different categories of men. The Constitution, a few years later, did differentiate by allowing slavery.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Abraham Lincoln had absolute resolve that the nation would endure as long as he was President.

“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” This is one of the truly powerful, poignant statements.

“Those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” In John 15:13, we read, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” No greater love than to give your life. Such incredible devotion. In fact, “the last full measure of devotion.”

He went on to say, “It is fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground.” He said that those who fought and died here had consecrated it far above anyone else who would follow.

And while he assumed that the world would “little note nor long remember” what he said here, we indeed remember, in near reverence, what he said here. While the organizers of the event intended that the ground would be dedicated, he instead declared that the dedication that was taking place . . . was on the living rather.

Once again, we see the timelessness of his remarks. We still must remain dedicated to that cause which they “so nobly advanced.” The cause of Liberty.

He concluded that we were a nation under God. In fact, on more than a few occasions, he said that he often found himself on his knees in prayer, because he knew of nowhere else to go.

Lincoln even called for a new birth of freedom. Jefferson said that “from time to time, the tree of liberty must be replenished with the blood of patriots.” President Lincoln, on a daily basis, was aware of the blood that was being shed. He also had just lost one son, Willie, a year before. In fact, the hat Lincoln wore at Gettysburg had a black band, the mark of a man in mourning.

And then his three simple prepositions. Three simple prepositions that he made enormously powerful – of, by, for – each time reiterating the people.

  • Of the people
  • By the people
  • For the people

He had steadfast belief . . . in the people.

As he concluded his remarks, he said that this government would not perish. Would not perish from what? From the continent? The hemisphere? No, from the earth. This man realized the significance of what was at stake.

That Lincoln believed that this Civil War was about the proposition that all men are created equal can be seen in his inference to the Declaration of Independence. This set the stage that a continuation of the Union affirmed that all of the United States was to be a land of liberty and freedom for all.

As Gary Wills said in his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, “Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”

The document is also remarkable, as you see it written on paper or engraved in the Lincoln Memorial, in that there is no reference to a specific place, such as Gettysburg, a specific time, such as 1863, or any specific soldiers. Nothing in his remarks dated it. It was destined to be a document for the ages.

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