What mystical oracle did Abraham Lincoln have when he drafted the Gettysburg Address? Did he have a tool or some object that allowed him to see the future? Was it his own mind filled with depression, known as melancholia in his time that would provide the bio-electric chemical reaction in his brain to open up a vision to another dimension? Did his dreams of future events play into it?
It is well documented that he foresaw his own death. Did he also see the future of The United States and give us a glimpse the destiny of our Republic? Or, did the future he saw horrify him enough to give his own last full measure of devotion to set a different course? We’ll never know for sure, but it all came together in a two minute speech that many consider the defining prose of the American identity. Where do we begin?
Four score and seven years ago…. Nowhere in the American conscience is there a more iconic, identifiable phrase. Americans can immediately recognize it as the opening to President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863. Most Americans can complete the phrase from memory, but very few can remember its entirety through the fog of a Middle School recitation contest.
Yet, the address itself has gone further to define our character than any other address given by any elected official or appointed representative. The likes of Rev. Martin Luther King have referred to the ideals of the Gettysburg Address, formed in our founding documents to motivate Americans into accepting and living up to the challenges President Lincoln set before The United States, at its most vulnerable time. It was a time when the future of the Republic lay in serious doubt.
Like all things in the political arena, The Gettysburg Address was a political speech. Lincoln used the opportunity to set forth his vision of America while speaking on consecrated ground. He told his audience that “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” He gave cause to those that have lost their lives in the Battle to have “consecrated it far beyond our ability to add or detract.” In essence, Lincoln fused the honored dead for giving “Their last full measure of devotion” to bring about his vision of The United States of America.
But where did Lincolns eloquent words come from? There are only 272 of them, yet they have been crafted into one of the most memorable speeches in human history.
The image of a self-educated, backwoods figure like Abraham Lincoln, sitting in a train writing the Address on an envelope he kept inside his stove-pipe hat, is as charming an American figure as we could ever imagine. But, what that image fails to provide is a deeply faithful man of extreme intellect whose words go back to Pericles’s Funeral Oration Over Athenian Dead as written by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War. The concept of Honored Dead, and Last Full Measure of Devotion come from the oldest traditions of Good versus Evil and the cause of faith and enlightenment over darkness.
I had to go find a book that I read a long time ago to find the passage related to The Gettysburg Address, so don’t think I have this stuff on my fingertips. The book I reference is Thomas Cahill’s Sailing The Wine Dark Sea. It was there that I came upon these familiar sounding words. What takes Pericles twelve paragraphs to state as the greatness of Athens in order to give the soldiers death the grace and respect for giving their lives, Lincoln uses one sentence to advance the idea of America as stated by the Founding Fathers who “….brought forth upon this continent a new nation. Conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the principle that All Men Are Created Equal.”
Where Pericles uses his words to comfort and heal the families and loved ones that feel the loss of one of their own, Lincoln defines his nation and sets forth the challenge to continue the drive to uphold the standards our Founders set forth, standards that they themselves did not and could not live up to at the time the United States of America came to be.
As with all political speeches, The Gettysburg Address was hailed by some, derided by others, and not given a thought of by the rest. The Harrisburg Patriot & Union scorched all the speakers present stating “They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief or elated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication.” Of President Lincoln, the author said – “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
Lincoln believed in equality of all men. The moneyed and political interests thought otherwise, that wealth must be concentrated in the hands of the responsible ones for the benefit of all. Lincoln knew that was not only wrong for America, but just plain wrong. He knew that the government in the hands of the people and not in the unholy alliance of the wealthy and government institutions was the best government to serve the American people. This was the test for the “Government of the people, By the people and For the people (so it) shall not perish from the Earth.”
We see today’s political environment as polarized to a toxicity we imagine never happened before in our nation. The truth is we have yet to take up arms against one another to shape the nation as it will exist for the next century. Abraham Lincoln with a two minute Address set forth a vision of America that went back to the founding documentation that created the foundation of the United States.
He went further beyond the US Constitution to the Declaration of Independence that set forth a nation where all men are created equal. It is our defining principle that the founders knew they could not live up to in their lifetimes. Without this defining principle and others stated in the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution carries no validity.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – November 19, 1863:
Four score 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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate -we can not consecrate- we can not 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.