It is regarded as one of this country’s finest speeches ever. The speaker self-deprecatingly predicted the world would “little note, nor long remember what we say here.” He was quite wrong.
And, today’s politicians should note, the remarks lasted all of two minutes.
One of the most moving, quoted, catch-phrase-laden oratories in American history, Abraham Lincoln’s legendary Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago Tuesday, is as relevant today as it was then, for its expansive view of the American experiment. And of its precariousness.
Lincoln brilliantly seized the magnitude of the moment: Nothing less than history’s greatest undertaking in self-rule was at stake. He knew a fractured United States would likely mean a crumbling republic. He knew his stewardship was to make sure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
His profound summary of America’s founding – that the framers “brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” – used to be the stuff of elementary school memorization. And for good reason: Conceived in liberty? Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal? This is the very essence of America, in just a few phrases.
Today, our obligation is no lighter “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
The American fabric has not been this frayed since Lincoln’s day. The nation is sharply divided because we the people no longer agree on the very basics of what we believe. On what has made America exceptional, and what we must do to keep it that way.
John F. Kennedy, another president who was assassinated – 50 years ago Friday – hinted at that when he implored us to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
It’s not enough to be “conceived in liberty.” That birthright must be nourished, safeguarded and periodically renewed with sacrifice and selflessness and prudence and vision. At the absolute least, that birthright must be understood and appreciated. As Lincoln suggested, freedom is supremely fragile; its lifespan is a function of the character of those who live under it.
And in a republic, so, too, is the elected representatives’ character a result of that of the electors.
Maybe we need a bumper sticker that reads, “How is my electing?”
With favorability and credibility ratings of our current leaders at historic lows, it’s clear the nation has a serious character problem. Through our own self-indulgence and shortsightedness, we have, since at least Kennedy’s day, exalted and idolized leaders whose vision, far from Lincoln’s, extends no further than the next election.
The result is a nation whose leaders have us not only at each other’s throats, but on the cliff of financial collapse.
Yet, they keep offering us more and more – more benefits, more comforts – with no discernible way of delivering on those promises, except by robbing future generations. And we keep on buying those beautiful lies – again, with our children’s money.
If we buy anyone’s promise, it ought to be Lincoln’s. It is, simply, the promise of America.
Not of comfort or security or goodies bought by someone else yet unborn, but simply of freedom and opportunity.
May we take note of that promise today, and long remember it.