Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, and Memorial Day
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Memorial Day took on a whole new meaning for many Americans, especially those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks on American soil, but also for other so many other Americans who witnessed the unthinkable on that horrendous day.
Memorial Day, originally designated “Decoration Day,” was initiated because of the painful experience of the nation’s loss of life on a much more massive scale, certainly much more devastating than the loss of life on 9/11. Yet, what happened in 2001 serves as a reminder of how precious life truly is.
Born as an outgrowth from the ashes, destruction and death of the American Civil War, Memorial Day was eventually established by the Veterans Association after the war as a way of honoring the Union soldiers who gave their lives that the United States could survive as a nation. Abraham Lincoln expressed the sentiment best when he honored the soldiers who fought and died at Gettysburg.
Lincoln serves as our witness to this tumultuous war. In his Gettysburg Address, he provided clarity to the why of the war in a brief but cogent statement. He gave his perspective on the purpose of that war and on the value of the ultimate sacrifice made by those who “gave their lives that that nation might live…”
He also made a statement that may have been too bold for the time. He declared, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” But today, as countless Americans celebrate Memorial Day, the question can be asked: Have Americans forgotten what those brave soldiers did at Gettysburg, or on the Hindenburg line, or on the beaches of Normandy, or in the hills of Korea, or in the jungles of Vietnam, or what the men and women in uniform do on the front lines today?
Certainly, to those for whom it matters, it is hard to forget. But for those for whom hamburgers or hotdogs, backyard barbecues or the ballgame or the race matters more, the sacrifice of one’s life for other people can be diminished and forgotten. Nevertheless, it is still quite important to remember why soldiers died at Gettysburg, and it just might be possible to connect the dots as to why so many Americans gave their lives over so many years in all those other faraway places.
It ultimately comes down to whether it all matters, whether it truly holds meaning that there were once people who offered their lives that this nation might live. Americans have the capacity to choose what matters most. But, sadly, the more choices we all have, the more our capacity for confusion or distraction.
Lincoln’s words have continued to ring true through the ages, especially for those who can grasp the deeper meaning of his words. Ironically, in November of 1863, it is apparent from his carefully chosen words in the Gettysburg Address that he was not entirely certain that the Union would prevail. He hints at this three times in this address, carefully referring to the obvious: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated [conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal] can long endure.” The fears of many of the founders were that such a nation might have a short lifespan, and Lincoln had studied their words and understood.
It is undeniable that Lincoln understood the United States of America had been founded as a unique nation dedicated to freedom in a world filled with tyranny. But the reality of that peculiar institution of slavery within the United States was blatantly indicative of the existence of tyranny in America’s own backyard. Slavery by any other name is still slavery. Lincoln realized that the very existence and toleration of slavery meant that the ideals of the founders were incomplete and unfinished. Lincoln had explained in his famous “house divided” speech that this nation had been created through compromise between those who accepted slavery and those who relied upon slavery.
In the time Lincoln was president, the majority of the Southern population in the country was against him, and the rest were unsure of what they believed about the institution of slavery. But, it was Lincoln and a small minority of Americans who believed slavery was wrong – politically, economically and morally. Although Lincoln did not become an abolitionist, his attitude was simple: the nation could not continue to be half slave and half free because a house divided against itself cannot endure. In essence, either the nation would be a land of the free and freedom would be extended to people throughout the land, or the nation would perish.
The longer the war dragged on, the less Lincoln was certain that the United States could hold on to the dream of freedom for all people. At Gettysburg, he challenged the people for whom this mattered:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated 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 – 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…”
Although it is not obvious to the small-minded or to those with an ideological bent opposed to a belief in true freedom, the founders were able only to carve out from the wilderness of tyrannical realms a small foundation for the land of the free. Essentially, they plowed the field and planted the seeds for freedom to grow and eventually mature.
By Lincoln’s time, the capacity for Americans to remember the dream of freedom had diminished. Yet in the Deep South, it may have never been a genuine dream, especially for the aristocracy and landed slave-owners. Nevertheless, to many Americans, freedom did matter and they did remember.
The cause for which those Union soldiers gave the last full measure of their devotion was that this nation, under God, had a new birth of freedom. Keeping the torch of freedom lit has been the continual challenge of a nation conceived in liberty, a challenge to further and develop such ideals or lose recognition of their value. It is the continual challenge as well of whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can continue to endure.
Lincoln did not want the war, but was willing to go to war and willing to send men and boys to fight in order to preserve the Union. Lincoln was not only willing to save the nation, he was sincere in his dedication to preserving the principles of freedom and liberty because they represented bedrock of the nation.
If one closely examines Lincoln’s choice of words in the Gettysburg Address, it is possible to understand that he was most concerned with the survival of the key founding principles mentioned in the first paragraph of his Gettysburg Address. He was absolutely determined to make certain that the dream of freedom would not dissolve. Lincoln grasped that the stakes were extremely high during the Civil War. But they always seem to be high when the battle between freedom and slavery takes substantial form. It is fitting and proper that Americans remember those who gave their lives “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”
On a consistent course that our Founding Fathers initiated over 200 years ago, Americans have been the ones called upon to make the sacrifices so that such a nation could not only continue to exist, but that the dream of freedom could continue to exist. There is no denying today that freedom and liberty are fragile in such a turbulent world.
In a much broader sense, the cost of freedom is quite high. It is ultimately up to those men and women who have chosen to wear the uniform of their country, who are often required to lay down their lives for the preservation of freedom throughout the world. Who else would? For whom does it matter as much?
It is good that it still matters, that the dream of freedom is still what defines America. It is good that it still matters that there have been men and women who have offered their lives so that such a nation conceived in liberty might endure. It is good that there have been men and women who have offered their lives to preserve the dream of freedom for others. May God bless those who offered their lives for the sake of others.