Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that Lincoln was not the keynote speaker that day, that he did not speak very long, and that he did not seem to think that his words would have any lasting impact, his remarks that day are unquestionably among the most important speeches in American history. It is not by chance or happenstance that his words are still remembered and studied a century and a half later. The text is engraved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial and memorizing the speech is still fairly common among schools and even colleges in the United States.
I had a unique experience with the Gettysburg Address while I was in college. I was taking an honors course entitled Lincoln at Gettysburg: Propositions of Equality. The course was taught by my favorite professor, Dr. Myron Marty, and we spent the entire semester studying first Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg and then the impact of those words in general and the attempts by other presidents after Lincoln to effect the equality Lincoln spoke so eloquently about. (I, for example, was assigned to look at the first President Bush and the Americans with Disabilities Act). my unique experience, though, came when we were supposed to report to class one day with a question we had about the Gettysburg Address. I had forgotten to think of a question in advance and so, as Mr. Marty (as he preferred to be called) told us that he was going to distribute 3 x 5 cards and we were to write down our questions I quickly thought of this one: How, if at all, would Lincoln have changed his remarks if he could have known that they would still be studied more than a hundred years later? Mr. Marty then collected the questions and proceeded to read them aloud to the class, first telling us that we would have to select one of the questions to be the topic for a research paper we were going to write. For some reason only he will ever know, when Mr. Marty read my question he looked at me (no doubt with a twinkle in his eye) and said, “I am going to require you to write your paper on this question.”
In my mind I was thinking, “Thanks a lot! It is an interesting and thought-provoking question(if I do say so myself), but how in the world am I going to research what Lincoln might have done if he had known something he did not know?” Well, researching that paper turned out to be a fascinating experience for me, and I got an A on it. I think I still have it somewhere, but since I am not going to share it here right now I will go ahead and give you my conclusion: had he known his comments would be remembered and studied long after he spoke them Lincoln probably would have spent much more time crafting them and probably would have changed them, but he should not have changed them. In other words, they were practically perfect just as he delivered them.
Lincoln’s words have echoed through the decades because of what he accomplished in just a few minutes. He recalled the founding of the country, and the belief that all mean are created equal. The Constitution, of course, did not originally reflect that belief given that it did not grant women the right to vote and permitted slavery, but the belief was there in the hearts and minds of many and that belief was eventually recognized with the abolition of slavery and the granting of voting rights to women and non-whites. It has not been recognized yet in one very important way, though, and that is that unborn children are still legally murdered when their mothers decide for whatever reason not to allow them to live. This is a clear violation of the idea that all men are created equal. This idea is also being perverted by those who insist that homosexuals deserve the right to marry. I have explained numerous times why homosexual marriage is not a civil rights issue, so I will not do so again. My point, though, is that the idea that all men are created equal has still not reached its complete fulfillment.
There is far more within the Gettysburg Address that is worthy of examination. If you cannot remember the words of the speech I encourage you to look them up and find them–it will not be hard! Take time to think about the message Lincoln shared that day one hundred and fifty years ago. Take time to reflect on the sacrifice paid by men and women in defense of this nation and the freedoms we hold dear…a sacrifice eventually paid by Lincoln himself. Take time to reflect on Lincoln’s conviction that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” and think about the danger being posed to that government by the actions of our current elected officials.
Lincoln’s speech was brief, but heartfelt. He spoke out of the convictions of his heart. There were no speech writers, no teleprompters…he wrote the words himself and he delivered them reverently and solemnly. They are still remembered because they are powerful and, if we let them, they still have much to say to us today.