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

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.