Commentary

Saunders: The eloquent Gettysburg Address stands the test of time

bsaunders@newsobserver.comNovember 18, 2013 

  • The Gettysburg Address

    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.

    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 battlefield 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.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not 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. 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.

Q. Do you know Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?

A. I didn’t know he had moved.

Ba-dum. That hoary old vaudeville line must’ve been a real knee-slapper right after the Civil War. As hard as it is for us to believe, though, many critics considered the speech Abraham Lincoln made to honor the war dead at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., on this date in 1863 to be a joke, too.

A newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa., last week issued a retraction of an editorial its predecessor wrote damning what many of us consider one of the two greatest speeches in American history – Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech 100 years later being the other one.

This editorial appeared in the Patriot-News in Harrisburg last week. “In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

Hey, better late than never, right?

The Patriot & Union (huh?) editorial from 150 years ago lambasted Lincoln for his “silly remarks.” Newspapers at that time were stridently and unabashedly partisan, and the Patriot & Union was a Democratic mouthpiece that was inclined to oppose any utterance of a Republican president.

‘Written by a baboon’

Civil War historian Dean Harry, of Raleigh, said “Republican newspapers thought it was the greatest thing ever. Democratic papers thought it was written by a baboon, which is what they called Lincoln. It was like MSNBC” – a network with a liberal slant – “and Fox News.”

We all know what Fox News’ slant is.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns considers the speech that begins “Four score and seven years ago” so significant that he has said he thinks every American should memorize it. That wouldn’t be hard to do, since the speech lasted about two minutes and consists of 273 words.

The dude who spoke at the ceremony just prior to Lincoln rambled for more than two hours, and his remarks have indeed fallen behind the “veil of oblivion” to which the Patriot & Union sought to consign Lincoln’s address.

When I reached Duke University history professor Thavolia Glymph last week, she said she was attending an event honoring the speech and its historical significance.

“(T)he speech,” she said, “is significant because it was one of many steps that Lincoln took to reset the war’s agenda. Here he places the war in the context of the nation’s founding ‘in Liberty’ and links the horrific loss of life at Gettysburg to the nation’s ‘unfinished work,’ i.e. ‘the proposition that all men are created equal.’”

Right on. You see, Lincoln knew at the beginning of the war that he couldn’t come right out and say it was about abolishing slavery, but after that speech, it became impossible to view it as being about anything else.

‘New birth of freedom’

Glymph said, “When we consider that the Gettysburg Address comes on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, the flight of hundreds of thousands of slaves to Union lines, and the arming of black men as U.S. soldiers – with all its implications for black freedom and citizenship – Lincoln’s reference to ‘a new birth of freedom’ takes on added meaning.”

Harry calls himself a “Civil War fanatic” – as am I. He called the address “the greatest speech in American history. Every word was carefully chosen and had the meaning he intended it to have.”

Harry is a licensed battlefield guide at both Gettysburg and the Bentonville battlefield in North Carolina. As he talked, he said he was standing several hundred yards from the consecrated land on which Lincoln spoke.

Harry has been conducting tours of the site for the past several days and said the National Parks Service is anticipating between 25,000 and 35,000 people at Tuesday’s program. There would’ve been more, he said, had President Obama been on the program.

What, I asked Harry, made – makes – Gettysburg so important?

“The number of people killed here, for sure” – more than 10,000 dead in three days of fighting – “but also the fact that it occurred on Union soil,” he said. “It was the only Union victory on Northern soil. It was the last time the South invaded the North (and) it’s where the South came to realize they lost the war, even though it went on for two more years. ... Public opinion was turning against the war” – nobody expected it to last that long – “and Lincoln was trying to rally people to it.”

I reckon we can conclude the speech succeeded.

America is far from perfect, but that speech from beginning to end is one of its perfect moments and should fill us with pride that we had a president who felt that way.

Timeless eloquence, indeed.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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