Two years of war had ravaged the land and split the country. The unpopular Republican president, whose unlikely reelection one newspaper would refer to as “undoubtedly the greatest evil that has ever befallen this county,” now left Washington D.C. to visit the site of a battle and speak to the country. The Chicago Times would later call his speech, “silly” and “flat.”
One hundred forty-two years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln gave a short speech at Gettysburg, helping to dedicate a new national cemetery. Four months earlier, during three bloody days in July of 1863, seven thousand of 150,000 soldiers were killed there, 45,000 were wounded.
On this day, Lincoln defined the United States and the Civil War. He said this nation had been “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” born of an ideal and dedicated to an idea. Of the Civil War itself, he said it was testing whether this nation, “or any nation so conceived can long endure.”
Most people know the first few words of the Gettysburg Address, though they’ve unfortunately become a disconnected cliché. These past few years I’ve been drawn back to this speech repeatedly and have come to see the middle of the last paragraph as especially meaningful.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here 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.”