The Gettysburg Address
Thursday, November 19, 1863“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. 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. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Why are Abraham Lincoln’s words immortalized – literally etched in stone – for following generations to read, consider and internalize? What deep, possible eternal, truth resides in his 267 words? If we take the time to unpack his phrases, I offer the following explanations for your consideration. Let’s begin at the beginning:
“Fourscore and seven years ago…” At that time, the Constitutional Republic had existed for 87 years. This year, we remember what took place 150 years thereafter. Altogether, the United States of America has survived 237 years.
“…our fathers brought forth…” After 87 years, the creation of the Constitution had not yet become a faded memory. November 22, 2013 marks the 50th year since JFK was assassinated. I remember where I was and what I was doing when the news reached my school. Although, Robert E. Lee fought on the side of the Confederacy, his grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence.
“…on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty…” When was this new nation conceived in liberty? In 1620, the Pilgrims were blown off course and landed at what we know today as Plymouth Rock. Before the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower, they became the first group of people to bind themselves together and govern themselves under their own body politic; because they were not certain that the charter they received from the king had any authority where they landed. We know their three-paragraph legislation as the Mayflower Compact. To my knowledge, not one king desiring to exploit this land stepped one foot on American soil until long after it had established itself. The first recorded royal visit occurred on June 7, 1939 by King George IV and Queen Elizabeth of England.
“…and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Our Constitutional Republic is an experiment based on the idea that God created all corruptible people equal. He does not guarantee equal outcomes for anyone, but under His governance, we can govern ourselves and be treated equally under the law. Does any other nation on this planet claim this concept as its foundational cornerstone?
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” It is my opinion; Abraham Lincoln understood that the founders’ experiment of a Constitutional Republic recognized the value of each human life. They ordained a government of expressed limited powers to combat the natural-man tendency to gravitate toward totalitarian governments, which control the behavior of their subjects, by the point of a gun and/or the force of law. 150 years later, we face a similar test. Which truth will we accept? If the conception and proposition – that all men are created equal – is true, we the people must have courage to embrace our privileges and responsibilities as citizens and resist any government that erodes freedom under the false promise that it will take care of the people. Throughout all recorded history, even the most benevolent governments have turned against their own, whether kings or a self-proclaimed ruling class. History tells us that uncountable millions suffered execution believing that their government would do them no harm. If our foundational cornerstone – all men are created equal – is a fancy notion, or worse, a lie, then we should surrender our citizenship and become subjects to the ruling class elites and do what we’re told because they know what is best for the collective good. I am fully persuaded that our founding fathers declared the self-evident truth – that all men are created equal – and it is true.
“We are met on a great battlefield of that war.” The Battle of Gettysburg has been studied by historians and military tacticians for over a century. It covered and immense amount of territory, over 11,500 acres, surrounding the town of approximately 2,500 citizens. Between the contesting armies, roughly 165,000 combatants invaded this sleepy, little college town (2 Schools – Lutheran Seminary & Gettysburg College) and farm community. Most of the fighting consumed the first 3 days of July 1863.
By the time Lincoln visited and toured the field four months later (for us 150 years ago), many areas had yet to be cleared. We in Colorado just witnessed the destruction wrought by a natural disaster – the flood of September 2013 (9th – 15th), where some 19,000 homes suffered damage. Even with modern construction equipment and trained manpower, areas effected remain devastated. When my wife, Mary, and I visited Gettysburg for the 150th Anniversary of the battle, we learned that the body of a Confederate soldier was recovered northwest of the town during the summer of 2009 in the area referred to as the, “Railroad Cut.”
Mary noted that the town’s people couldn’t open their windows for months after the battle due to the odor of death. When we have an upslope wind, we often deal with interesting aromas coming from the eastern plains. Abraham Lincoln faced the blighted land first hand. He had drafted his speech before arriving. In his own words, he never fully committed his life to Christ until that night after he toured the field. That night he completed writing his speech. With that in mind, we can continue through it.
“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.” Again, he reminds his listeners what is at stake. He referred to our Constitutional Republic as the last best hope for freedom on the earth.
“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” Abraham Lincoln had a clear sense of right verses wrong. This is a sentence he used more than once. He states it in his second inaugural address, which is etched in the south wing of the Lincoln Memorial.
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” He recognizes human and government limitations. He seems to express genuine humility. I have often begged God to grant us leadership like this today. Unfortunately, our leaders today believe the grand lie that more government and more taxes will solve every problem.
“The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” He seems to apply the Biblical standard to give honor to those who deserve honor. He is just giving a speech to a crowd of well-meaning listeners. If Lincoln were alive today, I don’t think he would include someone who happened to look at the current president’s prized web site (that doesn’t work very well), yet he claims, “It’s really good.” Really?
“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” I find this phrase almost ironic. Most Americans are aware of Lincoln’s speech. Some know about the battle and a few understand its significance in American history to preserve liberty for all. However, I had the opportunity to discuss with a family from Germany key points regarding, “Pickett’s Charge,” on July 3, 2013, during the commemoration of that 150 year old event.
Now we come to Lincoln’s conclusion and plea for national reconciliation.