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The Gettysburg Address

Think. It's Not Illegal Yet | Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tuesday will mark the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s speech dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Penn., given in 1863. Located within the Gettysburg National Military Park, this cemetery was created for Union soldiers to be buried after the Civil War, but was expanded to accommodate those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in later conflicts. The Gettysburg Address has become one of the most renowned American public speeches in history and is revered alongside other notable deliverances including Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration.
In dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Lincoln was invited later on by the memorial committee almost as an afterthought. Edward Everett, who delivered a two-hour oration on behalf of the fallen soldiers, gave the primary speech of the day. Lincoln followed with remarks that lasted roughly three minutes. The eloquence of Honest Abe’s delivery and the succinctness of his speech captivated the audience at Gettysburg. The entire nation became mesmerized by Lincoln’s ability to weave Christian themes into a secular memorial for the war-fallen. Time was significant for the President’s speech too, as the Union was two years into the Civil War – fighting right in the thick of things with an end still looming in the distance.
Lincoln begins the Gettysburg Address appealing to the Founding Fathers, U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Starting with “Four score and seven years ago,” he immediately takes the audience back to 1776, reminding them of the newly proposed notion that “all men are created equal.” The President quickly follows by bringing back the assembly to the present and candidly mentions the desperate conditions of the nation under strife. Simultaneously, he asks indirectly if any country conceived in liberty could endure such a test of civil war. The frankness of his diction creates an atmosphere of trust and gravity. The audience knows their President is not trying to hoodwink them or understate the dire situation they are currently in. Lincoln’s juxtaposed use of “fitting and proper” in context of dedicating the fields previously used for battle as a modern war memorial invokes religious themes to his strongly Christian audience. Each individual listening to Abe’s words understands that he is not only speaking as President, but also as a concerned citizen, hoping to inspire confidence in the nation under fire. The text invokes a desire for a more just future with equality under the law while remembering the past in astounding brevity. 
The President concludes his speech by stating that even through words, no man can dedicate, consecrate, or hallow the plains of Gettysburg – again appealing to Christian themes – only the men who fought on the ground could possibly do so. He gives all of the honor to the individuals who lost their lives fighting for what they “so far have nobly advanced.” Instead of attempting to sanctify a ground already made holy by the death of 8,000 men, Lincoln suggests that the best way to commemorate their sacrifice would be to continue fighting for a “new birth of freedom.” Here he ends his remarks by famously calling for a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” hoping America can regain its position as a model of democratic principles for other nations to look up to for years to come.
Putting the debate over his response to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune editorial aside, (which polarized views on whether or not Lincoln was actually the “Great Emancipator”) there is still much to take from Lincoln’s powerful dedication at Gettysburg. Many historians argue that the Gettysburg Address transformed the entire meaning of the Civil War as viewed from modernity. Not once did Lincoln discuss specifics of battle, the names of any soldiers, the South, the Union, secession or states rights – he did not even mention the name of Gettysburg! Instead, he focused his speech on attempting to cleanse the nation of its original sin and contextualized his hope for the United States to stay united as one union. Instead of discussing individual actors at Gettysburg or describing what the people who fought there were like, the President’s speech transcends the physical world and instead emphasizes the importance of ideas, namely equality and justice.
So, 150 years later, how far have we come as a nation? Have we made Lincoln proud? Are we still a beacon for others to model after, just as the Protestants wanted to create a “city upon a hill” to symbolize American exceptionalism, work ethic and virtue? Or, have we not advanced as far as one might hope 150 years would allow – have we actually not proven that the United States went through a new birth of freedom? Is the government still of the people, by the people and for the people? It seems the answers to these questions might not be as simple as one would hope.
Regardless of your personal take on these questions we should be asking ourselves, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address brought together a divided nation by candidly discussing our troubling past, which many Americans hid in some dark corner in the back of their minds or attempted to rationalize as simply a states rights issue.

Connor Roth is a junior studying economics and constitutional studies. He lives in Duncan Hall, hails from Cleveland and is currently participating in the London abroad program through Notre Dame. He can be contacted at croth1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.