Nov. 19 marks the 160th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. This is an anniversary that will be little noted nor long remembered, but that is a shame.
The central message of the speech — that we are all created equal — delivered in honor of those who fought and died in the climactic battle of the Civil War in the stifling heat of July 1863 is as relevant as ever and always will be.
It lies at the heart of the great American experiment with democracy which is still being waged today. We should use this anniversary as an occasion to reexamine the beautiful words of this stunning address and honor the amazing man who uttered them. And to reaffirm our own commitment, as citizens, to the equality and dignity of all.
It is unfortunate that we turn our historical icons into frozen, unmoving statues so that we can honor their greatness. As time passes, our heroes and their achievements too often become mere caricatures and distortions, lost in the hagiographic mists. This tendency runs the risk of overlooking their struggles, their failures, their imperfections and, ultimately, their humanity.
That, I submit, is why a good biography is so exhilarating. It brings long-dead figures to life in our minds, humanizes them and makes their lives accessible to us. I suppose it is a good thing that generations of schoolchildren have been forced to memorize the 272-word speech. But in celebrating the incandescence of Lincoln’s words, we should not forget the titanic struggles Lincoln endured during his tragedy-filled life and the lesson buried in the heart of the speech, to repeat — that all men are created equal.
The brevity and brilliance of the speech have been regularly celebrated since it was delivered. Not a word wasted, not a comma out of place. Perfect. Sublime. Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial, on whose walls it is carved, I read it out loud to myself. Consider doing this. Hearing it is so much more powerful than just reading it.
It was so short that photographers tasked with taking the president’s photo didn’t have time to set up their bulky, 19th century equipment, so no picture of Lincoln speaking has been discovered. Thankfully, there is one of him walking in the crowd. If Lincoln delivered it today, he would probably change the phrase “all men” to “all people.” But the reference to all men being created equal comes directly from our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, which had declared: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
I would be omitting a large part of the story if I did not acknowledge that to the approximately four million enslaved people living in bondage in 1863, the Declaration of Independence was a cruel, hollow deception. I would advise people who have never encountered Frederick Douglass’s blistering speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, to read it. Better still, watch Ossie Davis’s delivery of the speech on YouTube. I will not quote from it because no fragment or summary can do it justice.
A bit of context. Lincoln spoke at the commemoration of the battlefield of the seminal battle of the Civil War. It marked the Confederacy’s deepest penetration of the North. If the Union troops had not held the line in the Pennsylvania town where it occurred, and the battle had been lost, it is impossible to know what the outcome of the Civil War would have been. The death and injured total is believed to be over 50,000. Yes —50,000, only some 8,000 fewer Americans than the American death total during the entire Vietnam War. All in a three-day battle. These included boys from North and South, all part of the same fractured family. The carnage was unimaginable.
But when Lincoln spoke, he was doing more than simply honoring the dead and wounded, as important as that was. He was reaffirming that the war was not only about saving the Union, but as mentioned, reaffirming the too-often neglected but aspirational assertion in the Declaration of Independence that we are all born equal and should be treated with equal dignity and respect. When the Civil War began in 1861, the goal of the North was to preserve the Union. Lincoln had been elected on a platform not to end slavery where it was, but to arrest its spread.
But by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, later permitting freed slaves to fight for their own freedom, and undertaking other measures, Lincoln had managed to make the war about more than saving the Union; he had converted it into a war to end slavery.
Despite the fact that he shared some of the racist assumptions of his time, his thinking had evolved during the war. Lincoln always hated slavery. But in prosecuting the war, he had proceeded slowly so as not to inflame public opinion and lose the support of the border states. He was a political realist as well as an uncommonly kind and decent man. At the end of the day, with exquisite political timing and deep moral purpose, he had accomplished what, in all likelihood, no other political leader could have done. He had ensured the death of slavery, whose abolition was soon to be enshrined in the Constitution.
Lincoln’s famous opening words in his speech — “Four score and seven years ago” —were an explicit reference to the Declaration of Independence, issued in 1776, 87 years prior to his Gettysburg speech. He uttered them, as he stated, in the midst of a war testing whether America could be reborn with a new commitment to its founding ideals. This struggle is a perpetual one, replayed generation after generation. We all have an obligation to make this “a more perfect union.”
We are, unfortunately, living in a time when hateful speech and hateful rhetoric are on the rise. As always, African Americans are frequent targets of the toxic environment we are living through. So are Jews, Muslims, Asian-Americans, trans people, and others, according to the most reliable statistics available, including those kept by the F.B.I. and the Anti-Defamation League.
Perhaps rather than relegating Lincoln’s words to the distant past and viewing them as irrelevant ancient wisdom to be memorized by school children and then forgotten, we should ask ourselves what we can learn from his profoundly beautiful words today.
Douglas S. Lavine is a resident of West Hartford.