Governor George E. Pataki

136th Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

November 19, 1999

I am deeply honored to address you on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s immortal dedication of this cemetery.

Standing here today, it is difficult to truly appreciate what happened on these fields and hills 136 years ago.

Today, we are blessed with relative peace and prosperity, and it has been decades since war has scarred American soil.

All the more reason to return to this sacred place to remind ourselves of the extraordinary price our forefathers paid for the freedom we enjoy today.

America is unique in that we are a nation founded on ideals, not mere ethnicity or geography, and those ideals have inspired people across the globe to leave the lands of their ancestors in search of a better life in the New World.

What draws these hopeful immigrants to our shores?  Simply put, the chance to be an American — to be part of the greatest experiment in human freedom the world has ever known, nation dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

For two centuries, that dream has united this nation, through times of both peril and prosperity.

And it is the strength of that vision that has carried our country through its darkest days. 

At times, we have been sorely tested in the struggle to fully realize that ideal.

But, bitter though those battles have been, we have stood together as one nation, united in our struggle — except once.

Only once did brother take up arms against brother and seek to settle on the battlefield what could not be decided in the courthouse, Congress or the town hall.

More than 100 years later, the terrible human tragedy of that conflict still aches.

We are gathered here today to commemorate one of the most momentous periods in American history, a time when the unity of the nation was shattered by war, and ultimately was reunited in a just and lasting peace.

Here at Gettysburg, on the first three days of July of 1863, more men fought and died than in any other battle ever fought on this continent.

The human toll was horrific:  170,000 soldiers marched onto these 25 square miles on the first day of July, and almost one out of three — 51,000 in all — were killed or wounded by Independence Day.

These were the bloodiest days of American military history.  But the numbers alone do not tell the full tale.  The strategic significance of the battle can hardly be overstated as well:  This was the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.

The South’s bravest sons marched onto these fields into a hail of cannon and rifle fire from which the Confederacy never recovered.  On this ground, the Union was saved.

On this ground, the unifying principles of American democracy triumphed over the forces of factionalism and secession.

That alone is reason enough to honor Gettysburg.  But the battle itself is only part of the Gettysburg legacy.

Six months after the battle, President Lincoln came here and spoke ten solemn sentences that, more than a century later, still speak to America’s conscience, and now inspire the world.

On April 19, 1775 an unknown Minuteman on the Lexington Green fired the “shot heard round the world.”  On November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered a speech that echoed around the globe and through the ages.

His words shook monarchies and dictatorships to the core, even decades after Lincoln’s death, and gave the world a priceless gift:  Inspiration and hope for a future where people of all backgrounds would be united in their love of liberty.

Lincoln stood here, surrounded by the fresh graves of fallen heroes, and called for a “new birth of freedom,” so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

America was still a young nation, and American democracy was an experiment that still could have failed.  But the men who gave their lives in defense of freedom on these fields did not die in vain, as Lincoln vowed they would not.

The tide of the war turned here, and the spark of American Liberty that Lincoln rekindled here has been changing the world ever since.

This month, we celebrate not only this anniversary of the Gettysburg Address but also the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism and the Iron Curtain.

When joyous Berliners took chisels and sledgehammers to the Wall, they carried the torch of liberty that was first lit in Lexington and Concord, that grew dim at Fort Sumter, but was reborn on these bloody fields.

Lincoln’s words crystalized America’s understanding of the Civil War and our national purpose, and united the North in defense of “the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Standing here today, it may be difficult to fully appreciate what a radical statement that was in Lincoln’s day, as it was 87 years earlier when it was written in the Declaration of Independence.

When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration, he put forth a truly revolutionary idea, that it was “self-evident that all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Right,” such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In so doing, Jefferson built American democracy on a foundation of truths that were so basic they were self-evident — not rights granted by presidents, princes or kings, but on rights so fundamental that they could only derive from our God-given sense of self-worth.

That’s why liberty is such a personal experience for Americans.  Each of us knows deep in our hearts that, regardless of fame or fortune, status or stature, we deserve equal rights, and we know that we cannot justly deny those rights to any person.

That was the essential genius of the Declaration and, when the survival of the Union was threatened, Lincoln returned to those self-evident truths for guidance.

Lincoln, as Frederick Douglass once said, “knew the American people better than they knew themselves, and his truth was based upon this knowledge.”

Lincoln understood that:  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Slavery was a cancer on American democracy that would destroy its foundation if it was not stopped.

Where the Declaration pronounced an unshakeable commitment to freedom for all Americans, the Constitution, as originally written, was fundamentally flawed in its tacit endorsement of slavery, and the Supreme Court refused to correct that immoral omission in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.

Faced with the failure of the Constitution to protect the fundamental rights of human freedom, and standing on a battlefield where thousands had just given “the last full measure of devotion” in defense of their country, Lincoln asked American patriots to rekindle the Spirit of 1776.

Where the Constitution was silent, the Declaration of Independence trumpeted a self-evident truth — that all men are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable rights” — that could never tolerate the subjugation of man.

Lincoln, believed in the fundamental goodness of the American people, and he knew that common, decent Americans — Wisconsin farmers, Pennsylvania miners, Massachusetts mill workers and New York firemen — would rise up in defense of human freedom if he called upon them to do so.

And they did.

It is that extraordinary, instinctive sense of decency and justice, and our willingness to fight for it, that is America’s most unique and enduring quality.

And in our darkest hours, when tyrants and bigots have threatened the progress of human freedom, it is that sense of decency that has guided true patriots to honor the legacy of Lincoln and the American heroes who are buried on these fields.

A hundred years after the Gettysburg Address, standing in the shadow of the Lincoln memorial,

the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked America to once again consider the full meaning of the promise of human freedom that was embodied in the Declaration of Independence and invoked on these fields by Lincoln.

King reminded America of the promise of Emancipation and the self-evident truths that this nation was built upon, and he appealed to the same basic decency of the American spirit that Lincoln did.  King asked us, as did Lincoln, to “live out the true meaning of our creed . . . ‘that all men are created equal.’”

America answered Martin Luther King’s call, as it answered Lincoln’s, as it answered Susan B. Anthony’s, as it answered Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s.

Americans of every race, class, creed and gender have always answered the call of Liberty and fought for it “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

Some cynics today believe that Lincoln was our last Lincoln — that today, we are governed more by polls and sound bits than by leaders and timeless ideals.  I know they are wrong.  Lincoln’s spirit is as alive today as it ever was.

It has been kept alive through the ages by GIs on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, by the “freedom riders” of the summer of ‘61, and by the all-volunteer Army in Desert Storm.

It was Lincoln’s spirit that inspired Chinese students to build a statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square.

It was Lincoln’s spirit that guided Nelson Mandela, Imre Nagy, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Yitzhak Rabin.

Today, dictators from Fidel Castro to Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong Il live in fear of Lincoln, as well they should, because the spirit of liberty that Lincoln died for cannot be extinguished.  While Marx and Lenin, Hitler and Stalin have been left on the dust heap of history, Lincoln’s ideals grow stronger every year.

Peace is the reward that comes to nations that are guided by principles of liberty and justice.  The quest for freedom united Americans in the war for Independence, and it is our commitment to freedom that unites us today in our quest to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

So it is worth remembering that Lincoln not only guided us through this most terrible of wars, he also led us into peace, and united us in our reverence for freedom as one nation, under God.

Lincoln himself, in what might be considered his final plea for peace, only a month before the outbreak of war, appealed to the South by invoking the unifying powers of our national battlefields.

“We are not enemies but friends,” he urged.  “We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Although those bonds of affection did indeed break, they are now healed, and now run even deeper.

The Union is stronger than ever, and this battlefield, which once divided Americans by war, now unites us in peace and in reverence for our common heritage, our common belief in the enduring American values that Lincoln invoked when he dedicated this cemetery to those who “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

These fields, which once echoed with the terrible cries of wounded and dying Americans, now call to the better angels of our nature.

And it remains as important today as ever that we heed those calls.  The fate of the Union no longer hangs in the balance, but still the unity of the nation remains fragile.

There are those who see America as nothing but a collection of groups.

Lincoln understood that we, as Americans, are one — and that the foundation of our unity is the freedom and liberty of each individual — E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One.

America is indeed a great nation of Many, gathered from every corner of the globe.  We came together to form a “more perfect Union.”  And we have, because we’ve remained faithful to Lincoln’s vision and America’s founding principles.

The lessons of Gettysburg are profound.  We must, as Americans, have a common purpose.

We must, as Americans, celebrate that which unites us and rise above that which sets us apart.

And, as Americans, we have every right to be proud of our diverse backgrounds and heritages — but united in our belief in America, its ideals and its commitment to freedom and liberty.

Those are the ideals of those who died here.  Those are the ideals that Lincoln recalled here, that will enable America to lead the world to greater freedom and liberty in the new millennium.

Thank you.


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