Opinion: On Gettysburg Anniversary, Have We Progressed Since Lincoln?

Monday, November 19, 2012 - 03:05 PM


On this date, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. I did not know the date until yesterday, when my 10-year-old son proudly and loudly announced it, as we waited to purchase tickets for the new movie, Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day Lewis as our nation's sixteenth president. The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, opens with the powerful words of that speech, as memorized by Civil War soldiers, black and white. My son has memorized it as well. He is black and white, and Native American too.

He is also a bit of a geek. But memorizing it is not a huge task. The address is notable for its brevity as much as its brilliance. By most counts, Lincoln delivered only 263 words at Gettysburg that day (forty-six fewer than I write here). The president understood the limitations of language. He said so in the speech itself: "[T]he world will little note nor long remember what we say here." Perhaps no president understood more that it is a person’s actions that will define his legacy more than any words he utters.

My son gave a little lecture as we waited for the movie to start. The Gettysburg Address, he told me (and all within earshot), was not well received - a lukewarm reception, at best. (He nudged me when this historical fact was referenced in the film.) 

Over time, of course, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become a national treasure, a symbol not only of the great man, but also of the great nation we can be - if we appeal to our greater natures. 

It would take another year and a half of bloody battle to achieve the goals Lincoln outlined that day. Lincoln brokered peace, but did not live to shepherd the nation through Reconstruction. Nor could he envision amendments giving African Americans and women the right to vote, let alone a black man in the Oval Office.

All of that change is part of the promise of America, the equality of opportunity he envisioned when he wrote: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this content, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition all men are created equal." The speech that Lincoln described as a "failure" when he delivered it has been imbued with solemnity and import, over time.

Now, it is for us to ask, with all that we have achieved, have we yet reached the larger objective Lincoln envisioned for us, as a functional democracy in the 21st century. Leadership is difficult, especially in times of global change. Very few have the wisdom to lead a nation. The difficulties my son and his generation are confronting today will give them the insights, humility and humanity to open new paths for America. Leadership is most often made from hard circumstances, not abstract ideas in ivory towers. Our best policy at present should be to encourage the fastest and fullest involvement of young people in the political process. 

The ultimate meaning of the Gettysburg Address is the last line: A united “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That is what Lincoln stood for in word and deed, in life and death. And so should we.


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Comments [3]


November 26, 2012

A good new book: How a Nation Grieves: Press Accounts of the Death of Lincoln, the Hunt for Booth, and America in Mourning. The foreword is by U.S. Representative Joe Courtney.

The book reflects the emotional state of the nation at its most traumatic moment. It also presents a style of journalism that stands in radical contrast to the journalism of today. Besides being generally more descriptive and opinionated, it was, in those dark and dreadful days following the assassination, very passionate, even poetic.

You can read excerpts at .


Nov. 26 2012 02:22 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Jami - In 1863, the concept of not allowing the world's first democratic republic established of, by and for the governed not to perish from the earth was compelling...A reason to fight on. At next year's Thanksgiving which do you think will get more coverage - 150 years since the Gettysburg Address...or 50 years since JFK at Dallas? My base read of media culture says the latter but I hope it is the former.

@listener - You are wrong in positing that Abraham Lincoln defended the country from the Democratic Party. He defended our union against insurrectionists who felt compelled to end a nation that it could not force to protect their right to own other humans. The Confederacy would ruin what they could not rule. Sound familiar to any party today?

You compound your error by pretending that the $16T of debt 'belongs' to the Democrats. Just so you can get back on the historically correct track...Clinton left Bush with a surplus that (if maintained) would have paid off the debt entirely by 2015. Bush and the GOP took $5T national debt (FY2000) and ran it up to $12T (FY2009)...Obama has added $3.2T. Big but not crushing if the recovery brought good paying jobs back to the middle class but doing so would take a GOP that was willing to see things improve for the worker. They cannot...It is just not in them.

Nov. 23 2012 11:43 AM

"Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide"
Lincoln - January 27, 1838

What would the first Republican President who defended the nation from the Democratic Party think of over 16 trillion dollars of debt and the economic decline and fall of the nation engineered by the very same Democratic Party Lincoln confronted 150 years ago?

Nov. 20 2012 10:10 AM

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