The Gettysburg Address is at the core of my American-ness. It emotes dogged determination in the face of melancholic frustration—hope undercut by the severity of war, yet still pulsating on that battlefield of death and revived with vigor in the words prepared by the President of the United States.
Like most American speeches that are qualified by the halo of “great,” a tremendous conflict gave birth to the lyrics of the address. By the beginning of July 1863, the civil war had only recently reached its halfway point and was no longer merely threatening to tear apart the democratic fiber sewn together by the revolutionaries almost a century prior, but indeed had already damaged the needlework and ruptured the threads that had once unified the country under a great promise of democracy and freedom. The Battle of Gettysburg, in its bloodied divisiveness, seemed ripe to go down in history as simply another conflict in a great war: uncomplicated by nature of its divided stance in North versus South, winner versus loser; horrifically tragic in the number of casualties incurred; and on one side, an optimistic turning point for a Union wearied by war and hoping to see an end after two years of too many deaths. But then emerges President Lincoln four months later—divine-like in his magnitude, though humanized in his awkward gait—stepping onto the grounds once pooled in blood and still littered with remnants of the battle, prepared to dedicate the land to its sacred use as cemetery. His address, noted for its brevity from a President who characteristically entranced his audience in speeches of greater length, used the power of few words to deliver a message attributing more to the battle than history itself would have written. Whereas a lesser speaker might have offered polite and pretty remarks that effectively dedicated the grounds to their burial purposes, President Lincoln spoke pure poetry and in under two minutes not only consecrated the land (despite his insistence that it was the combatants and the fallen—not he—who did so), but also managed to imbue the battle with hallowed purpose and reorient the Union to its democratic principle of liberty and equality for all. In picking up needle and thread and carefully inserting the first reparative stitch, the President expressed a renewed vitality for the purpose of preserving the Union, for carrying out the mission handled by those now buried in the soil of Gettysburg. And his impressive handiwork 150 years later has not faded in the least; rather, his mending words ultimately created a new design in the fabric of the United States, a design that we still wear proudly as a nation and one that other democracies have adopted in their own governmental lexicon. Indeed, stitched into the essence of our democracy, into the identity of our collective American souls, we embody President Lincoln’s words:
Government of the people, by the people, for the people
And so I say again, the Gettysburg Address is at the core of my American-ness. I embrace this phrase of representative democracy. It qualifies me as a citizen. It places me within a historical legacy in which this very notion had been threatened but ultimately preserved. It, most importantly, acknowledges my personhood, my rights, my privileges.
Today culminates the 150th anniversary of the 3-day Battle of Gettysburg. Heading into the 4th of July when we commemorate the birth of our nation, these two historical observations—one joyful, one somber—coincide in a momentous celebration in which history reminds us that lives were lost and speeches were given and festivities were carried out in the name of our individual liberties and democratic freedom. And the words of history endure.