The 19th of this month marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. What may be one of the world’s most important speeches. In the days since I’ve spent some time revisiting the importance of both that battle and the words Lincoln spoke a few months after.
The battle itself took place on the three days before the Fourth of July in 1863. It resulted in the first major victory for the Union and marked what most historians believe to be the turning point of the American Civil War. The victory came at tremendous cost to both sides. It was that largest and bloodiest battle to ever occur on American soil.
When President Lincoln stepped off the train upon arrival in Gettysburg, several months after the battle, he saw large stacks of filled coffins waiting to be transported back to the hometowns of their occupants. Lincoln’s purpose for being in Gettysburg was to deliver a speech marking the opening of a National Cemetery on the site of the battle. Three and a half months after the battle the sights and stench of war still everywhere to be experienced.
Lincoln was the principal speaker that day. He was preceded by an orator who spoke for two hours to the large crowd assembled. When he did step to the daïs he spoke for less than five minutes and delivered a speech that was only 270 words and 3 paragraphs in length. But what he said in those few minutes went directly to the core of what ideas America was founded on. In the last few days I read and reread Lincoln’s words and I can’t help but conclude that this was the Republican Party’s finest hour. The Republican Party has forever tied its beginnings to Lincoln and through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries worked to make many of the ideas in the Gettysburg Address reality. To its shame such is no longer the case. Today’s GOP shows little evidence of believing that all men are created equal. The 14th Amendment guaranteeing equality under the law was made possible by Lincoln’s Republican Party. Today’s right-wing dominated GOP opposes the 14th Amendment because it is the basis upon which moderates and liberals argue for such social issues as women’s rights, gay rights, same-sex marriages, etc.
After writing to this point my wife and I watched Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, the story of the fight for passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States and its territories. Had I been alive at that time, armed with the same mindset, I would have been a proud Republican. The position and behavior of the Democrats of that era was deplorable. Somewhere between then and now the two parties have simply flipped or reversed. The GOP, once the champion of progress and social justice, is today mired in protecting the status quo and resisting change on every front. It has become the proverbial grumpy old man who has little response to the new other than shouting, “No!”
NOTE: If it’s been awhile since you read or heard Lincoln’s most famous speech I’ve included the full text below. Or, if you choose you can hear Johnny Cash read it for you, click HERE. Cash begins with a statement about Lincoln writing the speech on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg. Both claims are myths. Just like George and the cherry tree, it didn’t happen.
“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 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 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.”