Only one part of Abraham Lincoln's nation-defining address at the dedication of a cemetery in Gettysburg was demonstrably false. "The world," he said, "will little note, nor long remember what we say here..." In fact, 150 years later the words still echo through schools, churches, government buildings, monuments and living rooms. They give substance to all that is celebrated on Independence Day.
They also remind Americans that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" is not perfect government. To preserve it in Lincoln's day, young men had to give their lives in a desperate war with their fellow countrymen. Self-government is as messy and controversial as the frailties of the human beings who wrestle with the issues of the day. But it is the world's best hope for freedom and liberty, and it cannot thrive unless the nation remembers its past, the people who sacrificed to bring Americans to where they are today, and the principles they considered worth fighting and dying for.
The first three days of this week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. That was a pivotal struggle in which Northern forces repelled a bold invasion by Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee into Pennsylvania, changing the course of the war forever. It came as a disaster of unimaginable scope for the town of Gettysburg. At the time, 2,390 people lived there. The battle resulted in casualties estimated at between 46,000 and 51,000, with an estimated 8,000 human corpses and 3,000 horse carcasses left rotting in the summer sun. There was little choice but to burn these in piles outside the town, and historians have noted that local residents became violently ill from the stench. The wounded, meanwhile, overwhelmed the town.
That enormous sacrifice of young and vibrant life inspired Lincoln's address, which transcended the moment through its tone and its efforts to reconcile a nation torn apart by violence and grief. Victors have a natural tendency to gloat or humiliate the defeated. Lincoln, however, spoke of the dead without differentiating sides. He didn't dwell on past grievances; he looked to the future. He spoke to all Americans, including the rebels. "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."
The short talk set the tone for a unified nation that has since stood up for those principles of freedom in conflicts around the world. It brought greater meaning to a people who fall short, who argue constantly over political philosophy and the definitions of rights, but who never cease trying to get it right.
The many Americans who descended on Gettysburg this week, and the many others who donned period uniforms and re-enacted the three-day battle, offer encouraging signs that the nation still remembers. So does the fact that so many still become emotional when visiting the site.
CBS News made that discovery while following a small group being led by a tour guide whose great great-grandfather, Patrick De Lacy, fought in the battle. Not only was the guide emotional, the people he was showing around were, as well.
Not many 150-year-old events hold such power. But then, no other nation on earth holds such promise and such devotion to higher principles. This is worth pondering as you celebrate the Fourth.
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