Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gettysburg Address

150 Years ago today, in Gettysburg, the United States dedicated a cemetery for the Union dead from the battle. That in itself was important, part of the evolution of the way the country treated the dead in the Civil War - part of the increasing effort, during the war, to give fallen soldiers a proper burial, to accord them the dignity and respect they deserved. It was a daunting task, north and south, to take care of the dead - again, I recommend Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering.

At the dedication, there were speeches and ceremonies, and then Abraham Lincoln spoke. Not a long speech, one with its modesty built in ("the world will little note, nor long remember"), and rather underwhelming at first. But it rings down through history, partly for its clarity and efficiency (for Lincoln was a great writer, one who helps to invent a more modern form of political speech), but also for its definition of the war. It marks how the nature of the war has changed since the beginning of the war. It is now a war for freedom, which by 1863, meant freedom for slaves - but phrased in a way that makes it clear that without freedom for all (including slaves), there is freedom for none. That ties it back to the beginning of the war, Lincoln's arguments from the start - that the war was about the question of whether "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The speech integrates the earlier statements of the Union's aims in the war with the aims as they had evolved in 1863, it links the defense of the union and of democracy itself to the freeing of the slaves; it carries the recognition that slavery was always a fall from the ideals of the country (a case made by abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, say, who revered the Declaration of Independence, and distrusted the Constitution) - that is powerful. It is moving to this day.

This is Jim Getty (I believe), a regular Lincoln re-enactor:

And Charles Laughton, from Ruggles of Red Gap:

And the words themselves:

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 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.

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.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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