In our opinion: Gettysburg a pivotal moment for the United States

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 19 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo provided by the Library of Congress, President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, in Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 19, 1863. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

Anonymous, AP

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A great battle was fought at Gettysburg; but no greater words regarding our county have been spoken than those addressed to us 150 years ago, when the nation found itself in a great time of crisis and need.

In offering dedicatory remarks at the gravesite of the bloodiest battle of the civil war, and where thousands of fallen soldiers would be buried, Abraham Lincoln said "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."

Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" hearkened to the promise in the Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal," and that they must enjoy their God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

However, Thomas Jefferson's founding document of 1776 — written "four score and seven years" prior to the Gettysburg Address — had become deprecated by the slave-holding states. While Lincoln saw the founders as seeking to put slavery on a course to extinction, slave-holding states read the U.S. Constitution as a veritable endorsement of slavery.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was the pivotal moment in recasting Americans' world-view to his own. As he spoke it plainly to Ohio’s 166th regiment, America affords “an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life.”

Abraham Lincoln was elected as president in 1860 not on a promise to end slavery, but to preserve the union. His first inaugural addressed delivered an olive branch to those in Southern states: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies."

As the civil war grew, deepening and drenching the soil of Northern and Southern states with blood of their children, Lincoln saw the hand of Providence.

In his October 1862 letter to a group of Quakers, for example, Lincoln declared himself to be "a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father," and added: "If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; if I had been allowed my way, this war would have ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe that he who made the world still governs it."

Lincoln concluded – and led all Americans to his conclusion – that the war's purposes could only be served by the abolition of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves as a military necessity in areas of rebellion. Though he had died by then, the 13th Amendment had made abolition permanent before Lincoln’s second term had expired.

The war nearing its end, Lincoln steadfastly refused to be triumphalist. He refused to hold that the "North" was prevailing over the "South." In his second inaugural address, Lincoln insisted all Americans bore the blame for its sin of slavery. He made a single, telling substitution (taking out the word "ye") in the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Let us judge not, that we be not judged."

Americans know Abraham Lincoln to be a great man in uniting the nation in a time of desperate division. But Lincoln was also a good man: a politician whose civility, empathy, kindness and determination bore witness to his character. This goodness fathered his greatness. Lincoln’s free forgiveness of political adversaries and his legendary refusal to hold any grudges are manifest of this creed — "with charity toward all, with malice toward none" — that became the civic religion for the nation, reborn, in the wake of the Gettysburg Address.

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