Next week will mark the 156th anniversary of the greatest speech in American history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I recently memorized its 267 words (something I did back in middle school, but had long since forgotten, except for the opening lines). In case my memory falters, I carry a copy of it in my wallet. Lincoln spoke to a crowd of only 15,000 people on Nov. 19, 1863, but his words have resonated with countless millions since then.
Each paragraph calls us to remember what it means to be an American.
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.
The United States of America, our country, was founded on one simple, precious, extraordinary principle: All people are created free and equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and 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.
We fought the Civil War to test our founding principle. Are all people, regardless of color, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, religion or socioeconomic status, truly free and equal before their Creator? Is this article of faith worth dying for? Can a nation dedicated to individual liberty long endure?
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot 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.
Lincoln could scarcely have realized how loudly his words echo through our national conscience today. Seven thousand died on that rolling patch of land in southeastern Pennsylvania – Union and Confederate soldiers, struggling to bring us to terms on the great promise of America, mocked by slavery. At the cost of so many lives on both sides, the “peculiar institution” could not stand.
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.
Since the free black man Crispus Attucks was gunned down in the Boston Massacre of 1770, making him the first American to die in the name of freedom and equality, more than 1.3 million Americans in uniform have died in war. They did not die in vain even though the work remains unfinished.
The great task remains before us: Do all we can to keep our nation worthy of that “last full measure of devotion.”
The Vietnam War ended in 1973, three months before I turned 18. The next year, I was in the next-to-last draft lottery and my birthday came up No. 212. I went off to college and never gave a second thought to serving my country in the military.
The Vietnam veterans are a few years older than me. As such, I hold an extra measure of respect for their service and sacrifice. Of course, 58,200 of them never came home. They gave the last full measure.
Near the end of the film “Saving Private Ryan,” the title character (portrayed by Matt Damon) attends to a dying Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks), who led the unit that went behind enemy lines to rescue Ryan. Miller’s last words to Ryan are, “Earn this” – meaning, live up to the sacrifice; pay back his death with an honorable life.
What can you and I, far from any battlefield, give back to our country?
■ Make yourself an informed citizen. Invest the time and concentration to learn the truth from legitimate sources. Think hard and critically about what you read and hear before drawing any conclusions. Commit to researching both sides of an argument.
■ Don’t yield to fear. It is the opposite of faith. If we ever needed faith in each other as free and equal Americans, that time is now.
■ Vote. Every election.
■ Serve in your community. Opportunities abound to make it better.
■ Give a damn about the future. On issues like the environment and the national debt, your kids and grandkids, and mine, will live with the consequences of the choices “we the people” make today.
■ Pray for our leaders, regardless of party. They answer to God.
It’s up to us. This is way beyond politics.
With our attitudes and actions as Americans in the 21st century, can we continue to govern ourselves with freedom and equality for all? As Lincoln said a year before Gettysburg, “We can but press on, guided by the best light He gives us.”