Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: A Fitting Foundation for Memorial Day

May God bless those who offer their lives for the sake of others

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: A Fitting Foundation for Memorial Day

By Dennis Jamison May 27, 2019

As Americans throughout the United States celebrate Memorial Day today,  it may seem that the “memorial” part has been drained out of the day to remember America’s fallen heroes. If citizens honestly reflect on this current three-day holiday, it may have more to do with relaxing at backyard barbecues, or taking in ball games. It may center around gatherings of family and friends, or spending precious time together with those who matter most. In one sense it is a celebration of life. Yet especially, since September 11, 2001, Memorial Day has taken on a new significance.

In 2019, however, Memorial Day may be celebrated by a majority without much real concern over its primary purpose: to honor the lives of the fallen soldiers who died in service to their country. And through the years, Memorial Day may not have been the most pleasant of holidays due to that purpose. The holiday was originally referred to as Decoration Day because it was a means to mourn the dead. Yet, the topic of death itself is an issue many people prefer not to discuss – a taboo topic—especially when it strikes close to home. Certainly, to those for whom it matters, it is hard to forget. It is hard to deal with, period.

Decoration Day was born from the death and destruction in the American Civil War. Tragically, the Civil War was responsible for the deaths of over 620,000 men and boys. It was the most devastating war in U.S. history on several levels. Decoration Day was created after the war by the Veterans’ Association as a means of healing the devastating emotional wounds opened by such an overwhelming loss of life. Today, as then, tragedy evokes deep emotional pain. The Veterans’ Association took responsibility to provide a practical means for families and survivors to mourn and to honor their loved ones. The end of May was chosen as the date because flowers were in season and plentiful, and were readily used in the decoration of the graves of those killed during the war.

Perhaps, however, President Abraham Lincoln gave the greatest honor to those Union Army soldiers who died during the entire Civil War when he spoke at the dedication of the cemetery at a single battlefield. His Gettysburg Address, however, not only honored fallen soldiers, but also offered a deeper understanding of the meaning or significance of the war to the families and survivors. At Gettysburg, he provided his perspective on the purpose of the war and on the value of the ultimate sacrifice made by those who “gave their lives that that nation might live…”

And, even though he lost his own life due to the violent upheaval in his time, Lincoln may have inadvertently laid the first foundation for Decoration Day. He offered sincere sentiment when he honored the soldiers who fought and died at Gettysburg. Lincoln focused on the sacrifice of those who shed their blood that the nation might remain intact. He declared: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,  but it can never forget what they did here.”

But, Americans have remembered the words. Students in American public schools used to be required to memorize the content of the Gettysburg Address. Yet today, as many Americans celebrate Memorial Day, the question can be asked: Have citizens forgotten what those brave soldiers did at Gettysburg? If Americans do forget, we lose part of our identity born from the blood that was shed in keeping America free, or helping to keep the world free from tyranny of countless manifestations and variations.

Thus, “the world can never forget what they did here.” Especially for Americans, it is still quite important to remember why soldiers died at Gettysburg. And, it might be possible to connect the dots as to why so many Americans gave their lives on the Hindenburg line, or on beaches in 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? What did the soldiers of the Union Army do during the Civil War? They preserved the Union. They defended the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence. They protected the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

America was being ripped apart through the Civil War, and 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 remain intact. 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.”

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. Certainly, the fears of many of the founders were that such a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal” might have a short lifespan, and Lincoln had studied their words and understood.

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 slant 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. 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, but he was also sincere in his dedication to preserving the principles of freedom and liberty because they represented the bedrock of the nation.

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. Memorial Day is for remembering that. May God bless those who offer their lives for the sake of others.


 

Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Currently retired from West Valley College in California, where he taught for nearly 10 years, he now writes articles on history and American freedom for various online publications.

Formerly a contributor to the Communities at the Washington Times and Fairfax Free Citizen, his more current articles appear in Canada Free Press and Communities Digital News. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he was the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. Jamison founded “We the People” – Patriots, Pilgrims, Prophets Writers’ Network and the Citizen Sentinels Network. Both are volunteer groups for grassroots citizen-journalists and activists intent on promoting and preserving the inviolable God-given freedoms rooted in the founding documents. 

Jamison also co-founded RedAmericaConsulting to identify, counsel, and support citizen-candidates, who may not have much campaign money, but whose beliefs and deeds reflect the role of public servants rather than power-hungry politicians.  ​

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