Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, 150 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the greatest speeches not just in U.S. history, but in human history. In under three minutes and using just 10 sentences, President Lincoln spanned the past, present, and future of the American experiment and spoke to the aspirations, rights, and responsibilities not just of Americans, but of humankind.
It’s astounding for us to realize that President Lincoln was invited to the dedication of the Nation’s first national military cemetery almost as an afterthought. The event was organized around the schedule of former Harvard president Edward Everett, who was thought to be one of the Nation’s greatest orators of the time. Everett was the featured speaker and, in the custom of that era, addressed the crowd for over two hours. President Lincoln, who had been invited to say “a few appropriate words,” followed Everett.
President Lincoln wrote for the ear; he recited words and phrases as he committed them to paper. When he gave speeches, he spoke deliberately. His great speeches, including the Gettysburg Address, were as much theological in nature as they were political arguments.
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.
President Lincoln borrowed a method of referring to time from the Psalms of the King James Bible (Psalm 90:10). It seems idiosyncratic to our ears today, but his listeners would have immediately grasped that he was going back not to 1789, when the first Congress convened in New York City and George Washington was inaugurated as our Nation’s first president. He was not going back to 1788 when the Constitution was ratified, or back to 1787 when the Constitutional Convention met. He was going back 87 years, to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, citing the proclamation of our Founding Fathers – who were from the North and South alike – of the universal truth “that all men are created equal”.
In the very next sentence, President Lincoln pivoted to the present and proceeded to explain the purpose of the Civil War: to determine whether the United States of America or any other nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could succeed and last:
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.
And then President Lincoln, with characteristic humility, paid homage to those who had fought and died at Gettysburg before pivoting again, to the future, and to laying out the responsibilities of his and future generations of Americans:
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.
As historian Ronald C. White, Jr., has written, “Lincoln was finished. He had not spoken the word ‘I’ even once. It was as if Lincoln disappeared so Americans could focus unhindered upon his transcendent truths.” Those “transcendent truths” are apparent to us today but things weren’t so clear 150 years ago, in the midst of the horrific brutality and death of the Civil War. On November 20, 1863, the New York Times reported that President Lincoln’s address was interrupted by applause five times and followed by sustained applause but historian Shelby Foote said that the reaction to the speech was delayed and “barely polite”. On November 23, 1863, the Chicago Times – an anti-Lincoln paper – editorialized that President Lincoln’s address “was an offensive exhibition of boorishness and vulgarity” and “a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.”
Initially, President Lincoln believed that the Civil War was being fought simply to preserve the Union. But his thinking evolved to the point where the war was about the abolition of slavery. It became the testing ground of whether the United States of America – or any other nation dedicated to human liberty and equality – could endure.
There is a popular legend that President Lincoln jotted down a few notes on his way to Gettysburg, or that he spoke extemporaneously. That isn’t true. He prepared the speech beforehand and there was one improvisation only: he added the words “under God”. As White noted, “‘Under God’ pointed backward and forward: back to ‘this nation,’ which drew its breath from both political and religious sources, but also forward to a ‘new birth.’ Lincoln had come to see the Civil War as a ritual of purification. The old Union had to die. . . Death became a transition to a new Union and a new humanity.”
And so President Lincoln – in theological as well as constitutional language – laid out for his listeners, for us, and for our grandchildren “the unfinished work” and “the great task remaining”: namely, to promote “a new birth of freedom”. As the American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, “There are those who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American dream.” We Americans are singularly fortunate and privileged to hail from the first nation in history “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. It is our solemn responsibility not only to protect and expand freedom here, but to promote and nurture it abroad so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
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