November 19, 2013

The Address: Seven Score and Ten Tears Ago

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The top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865- approximately one week after Lee surrendered to Grant in Appomattox Courthouse thus ending the war.

To be born an American, or to become an American, you need only know and understand four things that we have written down. Our founding document, The Declaration of Independence. Our agreement with ourselves and our government that specifies and protects the self-evident truths and freedoms of the Declaration, The Constitution. Our national motto:  "In God we trust." And our credo, "The Gettysburg Address."

A credo is a short and straightforward statement of beliefs or principles. A credo has no fixed length but lies somewhere between a motto and a manifesto. The most widely known traditional credo would be "The Apostles Creed."

Although it is not often thought of as such, Lincoln's brief oration at Gettysburg at noon on that long ago November day is, in all its elements, our national credo. Although shaped as prose fit to be cut, as it has been, into stone, The Gettysburg Address is also a lyrical poem as polished as a crystal prism. Through it, all that we had been up until that day midway through our most terrible conflict passed and was transformed into the multifaceted nation we have become today. And it is still not finished with us, nor we with it. 

The Address shows us first how we came into existence as "the last best hope of Earth." It echoes the opening refrain of the Declaration's notes of liberty and equality. It reminds us of our original goals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;" goals to which our founding fathers pledged their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor." It implies that all generations of Americans must, if the nation is to endure, pledge the same.

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.

The poem then brings the credo into the present. Not just the present moment of November 19, 1863, but all the present moments that came after right up to this very day in November in 2013. Then the argument between Americans had become so pitched that civil war between the contending factions had torn the nation asunder. We have come close to similar passes since then several times, but have -- remembering "the better angels of our nature" -- always turned aside and found a way to move forward together as a great nation of a greater people. Now may be another such moment; another such turning. Lincoln could not know our moment, but in his credo he indicates his belief that the test of his moment will be passed and that the nation will long endure. He also knows the cost of that test for those who "gave their lives that that nation might live." 

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 battle-field 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.

From that moment in that long ago November, Lincoln's credo casts a cold eye on the ultimate costs of liberty whenever men determine that liberty, for themselves and their posterity, is worth whatever sacrifice is asked of them. Out of that vision he tells us what the duty of all future generations of Americans must be. 

In the closing of the Address, Lincoln is at once a President, a poet, a seer, and an American. As such, he closes the credo to which all future Americans must cleave. The credo requires us to be constantly renewing the work of liberty. The credo tells us that we -- if we are to bear true faith and allegiance to all those who have built, stone by stone, poem by poem, word by word, and life by life, the city on the hill that is America -- must always be dedicated to the unfinished work that is always before us. The credo requires that we "highly resolve" to leave our nation in a greater state of liberty than we found it. And to leave our Union entire and intact as "the last best hope of Earth."

The most successful revolution in history was not the Russian Revolution or the Chinese Revolution. It was the American Revolution. It began more than two centuries ago and it continues to this day. It is not over yet. This is its credo.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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.

 

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Dateline: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. November 19, 1863 

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The only confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln (circled) at Gettysburg, taken about noon, just after Lincoln arrived and some three hours before the speech. To Lincoln's right is his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at November 19, 2013 1:57 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Beautifully rendered ... such a pleasure to read. Thank you. ~D

Posted by: Deann at February 12, 2013 6:03 AM

In my advancing age, I increasingly read the Address as the greatest and most influential rhetoric written since Common Sense. The work of the War Between the States was not to preserve the Union. Lincoln could have done that without war. The war was to end slavery in the union. It was not to create equality. "-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-" was a cause finished in 1865. The Union could not have fielded a single division to fight over equality, and Lincoln knew it better than anyone.The most unfortunate legacy of the War of Northern Aggression is the permanent war of equality.

"We have learned to do a great many clever things. Our next great task will be to learn to not do them."-
Edmund Burke

Posted by: james wilson at February 12, 2013 11:29 AM

Now Seven Score and Ten

Posted by: Fat Man at November 19, 2013 5:12 AM

Got it. Thanks.

Posted by: vanderleun at November 19, 2013 7:23 AM

I, on the other hand, am convinced that the Gettysburg Address is nothing but high-sounding gibberish, written as a throwaway piece on a train by the most Satanic president.

Posted by: Lorne at November 19, 2013 9:10 AM

Hold that thought, Lorne.

Posted by: vanderleun at November 19, 2013 9:49 AM

I lean with you Lorne. Lincoln understood better than anyone else in his time that the only way for his objective "Maniacally Strong Federal Government" to survive was to beat the South into submission and keep it and the rest of the country in servitude to Washington.

His "preservation of the Union" was the pitch he used to protect federal demagoguery and he didn't give a damn about how many Southern or Northern lives it cost anymore than he cared one whit about blacks, except to say they shouldn't be held in the bondage of slavery.

Destroying "states rights" was his only objective.

Posted by: Jack at November 19, 2013 1:29 PM

I lean with you Lorne. Lincoln understood better than anyone else in his time that the only way for his objective "Maniacally Strong Federal Government" to survive was to beat the South into submission and keep it and the rest of the country in servitude to Washington.

His "preservation of the Union" was the pitch he used to protect federal demagoguery and he didn't give a damn about how many Southern or Northern lives it cost anymore than he cared one whit about blacks, except to say they shouldn't be held in the bondage of slavery.

Destroying "states rights" was his only objective.

Posted by: Jack at November 19, 2013 1:29 PM

Hmm, too bad you can't blame this one on Bush. Oh, wait, the Illuminati were around back then, make it their fault.

You'll never see the stars if you keep looking at your shoes.

Posted by: chasmatic at November 20, 2013 7:47 AM
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