In the 150 years since Abraham Lincoln gave his immortal speech at Gettysburg, America has been torn and then stitched, ripped and then patched. We have watched ships sink, steaming and smoking, into black water. For the Star-Spangled, for the ones at home, we have sent our boys hurtling upward into the blue in hot silver metal, with nothing but a piece of string and scrap of cloth to save them from the fall. We have sunk our boots into other people’s sand and stood a flag up straight. We have built gleaming towers, and we have watched them melt. We have been hammered from all sides. Americans have seen the world, and it is on fire.
But not all of the punches have been thrown from outside. We are not so different, now, from Lincoln’s America. We are still at war with ourselves. Now, it is class, not cannon, that threatens to tear this country apart. Now, every decision made is trumpeted as wrong by anyone who would see the Union crumble underfoot for the sake of a doomed ideal. Now, our spine is bent and broken from years, from decades, of carrying our own dead weight, and we can no longer stand up tall on our own. We can no longer stand up tall with our friends. We can no longer stand up tall in the face of our enemies. We are weighted down, almost to our knees, and it is our own fault.
Thousands gathered at Gettysburg and heard the president challenge America not to forget what had happened there, not to forget the tens of thousands who struggled there months before. But we forget every day. We scratch at and claw at and fight with each other, and quit when we get mad, or when it gets too dangerous. In our jealousy and our pride and our desire to loom larger than everyone else we have taught ourselves to stomp, crushing those weaker than us under our sensible shoes.
Lincoln had hoped America could endure, but can we? He asked us to remain dedicated to a greater task, but have we? He hoped we would govern for the people, by the people, but do we? A century-and-a-half ago, our sixteenth president asked us the hard questions, and now, it’s time that we do, too.
The Gettysburg Address
—Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 19, 1863
“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.
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.
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.”
Photo by Jano Silva
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