Point of View

Obama needs own Gettysburg Address

November 16, 2013 

In a few days before Thanksgiving, we as a nation will commemorate the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I hope President Obama will address the American people at such a critical time in our democracy. I wish to tell you why. For more than five years now, I have devoted my free time in researching a story about a 12-year-old boy who sat on the platform with his father, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, and heard President Lincoln firsthand at the Nov. 19, 1863 Dedication Ceremony of the National Soldiers Cemetery.

My inspiration came from seeing the only known photograph that places Lincoln at the cemetery. It was identified in 1952 by Josephine Cobb at National Archives. I was drawn to learn Curtin family accounts of the boy’s having been present for such an historic event. Perhaps if young people could hear Willie Curtin’s story, I reasoned, they might be inspired to turn the page and learn more of what measures Lincoln had taken to save the Union, to preserve “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Not long ago, when I observed that most participants of a well-attended conference at Gettysburg had hair whiter than my own, I knew full well the urgency of this project. Students in middle schools are no longer required to memorize the Gettysburg Address as my seventh-grade teacher Mrs. Jurney, in the town of Harmony, had required us to do. In today’s political climate, one can not help but wonder how many members of this Congress ever learned Lincoln’s spoken words by heart as students or can recite its words and know what they mean for the first time.

Our nation has held many special events and anniversaries after the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and the Dedication of the National Soldier’s Cemetery at which President Lincoln offered his Gettysburg Address. Some more than others have reminded our people of why Lincoln’s “few, appropriate remarks” have inspired millions throughout the world to lay claim to freedom’s fame by the very survival of democratic government.

In 1913 the Keystone State hosted a 50th year reunion of more than 50,000 Civil War veterans, in which 9,000 former Confederate soldiers and officers participated. President Woodrow Wilson spoke to this assembly.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower spoke at the 100th year commemorative anniversary of the Gettysburg Address after President John Kennedy turned the invitation down. As an alumnus of Harvard’s Kennedy School, I especially wondered how the president’s staff, in my view, let such an historic event take a back burner to his trip to Ft Worth and Dallas 50 years ago. The Kennedy Library in Boston provided photocopies of the event file at my request. The draft of the President Kennedy’s uninspired telegram read at the 1963 commemoration had been farmed out by White House staffers to James I. Robertson, Chair of the the Civil War Commission.

I cannot imagine President Obama not leading our nation in remembering the significance of what President Lincoln said on that Battlefield at Gettysburg 150 years ago. Tell us from Gettysburg, Mr. President, how you see it. How did the brave in America live and die for freedom’s fame? Tell us how we can realize the American Dream again.

Roger Sharpe is author of a memoir, “Ceremony of Innocence,” by Mercer University Press. He is working in collaboration with producer Joe Vasos of Colorado State University on a documentary for public television, “The Boy Who Heard Lincoln at Gettysburg.”

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