Dedication Day Address


Rhode Island Chief Justice Frank J. Williams

Gettysburg Soldiers National Cemetery

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

November 19, 2004

Justice In War – Learning from Lincoln

Seven score and one year ago, the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln’s tribute to the fallen soldiers of the nation’s war flashed keenly on this sacred spot:

We cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead who have struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our poor power to add or detract.

This simple and profound address struck a chord in America’s collective heart.  Newspapers as far away as New England lauded his eloquent brevity. Wrote one:* “It is often said that the hardest thing in the world to do is to make a five minutes’ speech.  But could the most elaborate and studied oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring, than those few thrilling words of the President?”

As we stand in the midst of this stirring memorial to justice and freedom, we are surrounded by the ghosts of history.  It is easy to imagine the echoes of rifle fire, the anxiety of battle, the anticipation of bloodshed, the pride of patriots. The flags that fly here today, the graves that lie here row upon row, bind the nation and connect us to the soldiers who now rest in silent sentry.   

When Abraham Lincoln gave his address amid these graves and flags, he did not believe that his words would enter the fabric of American democracy for eternity. 

A thousand days earlier, as the country stood on the threshold of civil war, President-elect Lincoln had boarded the inaugural train and wound his way toward the nation’s capitol.  In accepting the presidency, Lincoln inherited a nation divided. 

From the first, Lincoln’s paramount goal was to preserve the greater Union, to unite this country forever under one flag.  In city after city, as he made his way to Washington, Lincoln addressed throngs of onlookers eager to catch a glimpse of their new leader.  His message remained consistent – one nation, one people, one law. 

Standing on the platform in Buffalo, flanked by two American flags, Lincoln grasped one and said: “I hold here in my hand the flag staff of the Union. Will you, my countrymen, stand by me so long as I stand by it?" 

The energy in the crowd was electric and in those final hours before his Presidency began, standing under the American flag, Lincoln sealed his vow to unify and preserve this “new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Even he could not have imagined the sacrifice that would be required to keep his promise.  The power of this military neophyte to wage war to ensure peace can be explained by  four tenets of leadership.      

First, Lincoln was clear and confident in his belief that all should live free of tyranny, terrorism and tumult.  Though he abhorred war, when Lincoln realized that the nation could not endure half slave and half free, he did not equivocate or timidly talk of surrender.  Rather, he committed all resources – political, economic, and human – to the complete eradication of inequity.

Second, Lincoln held true to his principles, remaining steadfast even in the face of criticism.  In the eighty days that elapsed between Lincoln’s April 1861 call for troops, marking the beginning of the Civil War, and the official convening of Congress in special session on July 4, Lincoln performed a series of crucial acts by sheer assumption of presidential power. 

Without Congressional approval, Lincoln increased the size of the army and navy, expended funds for the purchase of weapons,  instituted a blockade – an act of war - and suspended the precious writ of habeas corpus. 

For all of these actions, especially suspension of the writ, Lincoln was criticized, and is criticized still, for taking what were considered “extra-constitutional measures.”  Lincoln never denied that he had stretched his Presidential power but “these measures,” as he declared, “whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon, under what appeared to be a popular demand, and a public necessity.”  And in the end, his critics notwithstanding, Lincoln is ranked this country’s best leader despite his broad definition of executive power. 

Third, Lincoln valued nobility, honor and character in himself and in others.  He defined this element of his leadership philosophy in one beautiful sentence: “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.”

Fourth and finally, he thrived in the midst of a noble crusade – a focused pursuit of justice.  Lincoln knew that the distinction between law and justice is not merely a matter of semantics.  Law is an assemblage of rules developed from court opinions or enactments of the legislature; justice is based on the integral relationship between the people and these rules.

One hundred and forty one years later, we, the nation of Lincoln’s vision, remain blessed by the courage, valor and justice reflected in the colors of our national flag he saved for us.  Except for a few more stars, it is the same flag the Marines raised at Iwo Jima in 1945, an image that gave people all over the world hope and inspiration in the midst of such inhumanity.  It is the same flag Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted on the moon in 1969.  It is the same flag that firemen hoisted amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center in 2001.

The course of American history has been, and continues to be, shaped in the shadow of this powerful national symbol.  And it is in its shadow that we find its greatest legacy – its people –free to speak, free to protest, free to choose. 

Our history has always made room for competing interests and points of view.  When one muscle contracts, another stretches. It is basic physics – “for every action, there is a reaction.”   It is the perfection of opposing movement that creates total strength. 

It is through this living tension that our democracy has become stronger: the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, and the eternal right to dissent.    And today, we find ourselves walking a tense line between American security and personal liberty. Thrust upon us by the events of 9/11, our great country is in the midst of another great debate. 

What rights should be afforded to those individuals now detained as enemy combatants?  Do we need to employ two systems of justice in determining the rights of those detainees – one system for American citizens and one for the foreign born?  Can we revive historical military tribunals to aid in the dispensation of justice?  And how can we protect the civil liberties we all hold so dear, while guarding the safety of our country’s citizens? 

In every war through history, our leaders have struggled over similar concerns and similarly divided national opinions.  As the country threatened to implode during the Civil War, Lincoln struggled to strike a balance between preserving the political unity of the greater Union and a recognition of those inalienable rights promised all Americans. 

Lincoln may have been the first to realize that the laws of war are different than those to which our citizens are accustomed.  Even as Lincoln took audacious and even extra-constitutional measures during this national rebellion, he commissioned Francis Lieber, a Columbia University professor, to codify the laws of war.  As a result of his efforts, Lincoln is in many ways the father of the modern law of armed conflict.

These laws of war that permit detention of enemy combatants and the temporary suspension of our normal judicial practices - such as speedy trials and other due process – remain difficult for Americans to conceptualize.   But a new kind of war breeds a new reality – a time when security and national preservation may temporarily trump our accepted idea of civil liberties.  Lincoln knew how true this is.

---- and what about emancipation. . .

In an effort to save his union, Lincoln carried out the most dramatic age of liberation in man’s memory.  However cogently historians may insist that the civil war was not “about” slavery, the world will always see in it one overriding issue:  whether any man is fit to hold permanent power over the life and liberty of another.

Lincoln believed that “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”  It was Lincoln’s mission to lift the weight of oppression from the shoulders of all men in the name of freedom, liberty and equal justice.

The world was deprived of Lincoln’s noble ministry too early, but in his wake he left as his legacy a hopeful peace and enduring freedom.  His temporary suspension of some liberties secured all liberties for all time to come.  This is not only Lincoln’s legacy – but our eternal lesson for preserving the American dream.

The issues of civil liberty and equal justice are more heated today than even in Lincoln’s time because of the ever shrinking, ever more connected global village in which we all live.  During the Civil War, Lincoln was concerned about intervention only  by Great Britain and France.  Today, we are more acutely aware than ever of how the United States is perceived by our allies, especially on matters of human rights and freedom.

Lincoln emerges from the perennial controversy over civil liberties with a reputation for statesmanship.  That may be the most powerful argument for his judicious application of executive authority during a national emergency.  Whether our nation’s leaders  will continue to emerge similarly vindicated by history is yet to be determined. 

Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War may offer no neat legal precedents for today’s leaders but their political lesson is clear: our long-term goal is not simply to crush terror just as Lincoln suppressed a revolution based on slavery, but to save the nation, and our great democracy, as the “last best hope of earth.” 

* The Providence Journal

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