Reflections on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at Thanksgiving

When I was a child one rite of passage for all students attending my elementary school involved memorizing and reciting President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I have since learned that this requirement was not unique to my experience. Indeed, I have read many accounts of others who recall undertaking it. In fact, my brother, four years my senior, also studied and publicly recited the speech. I remember watching and listening to him as he prepared to do so. Here is the full text of Lincoln’s unforgettable remarks as he dedicated the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 on the site of that terrible Civil War battle:

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 so 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.

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.[1]

I want to focus on two phrases in Lincoln’s speech and compare their meaning and portent to our present national governance conversation as our country prepares to celebrate its Thanksgiving holiday. Lincoln began his address by suggesting that the United States was founded on the proposition that all people are created equal. By comparison, our current historical moment finds the President of the United States daily excoriating one individual or group or another as unequal and unworthy, in his ongoing efforts to polarize the population and provide grist for the sense of anger and sense of grievance so evident among his core supporters. He has attacked the grieving widows of combat veterans, African Americans as a class and as individuals, war heroes who endured torture for their country and so on. For Trump, whatever is up is down so long as he can divide and rouse anger among his followers by pressing a claim. More deeply, in all of these choices, the President has daily fundamentally and repeatedly repudiated Lincoln’s argument that the American nation was founded on the basis of human dignity and equality. Trump has done so most obviously perhaps by refusing to condemn the white nationalist hate mongers in Charlottesville, Virginia this past summer. Instead, he declared them morally equivalent to those who opposed them. The Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan devotees and white supremacists who marched down the Lawn of the University of Virginia brandishing torches and chanting Anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant slogans represent a cancer on the body politic and a force for hate and disunity. Nonetheless, Trump degraded himself and the country by refusing to uphold the national premise that all people are created equal that Lincoln had so eloquently articulated in his speech at Gettysburg.

Lincoln also contended that the nation could best honor the thousands who died on that battlefield by rededicating itself to individual freedom and rights and to a nation that would and could continue to uphold those for all. In contrast, in his first 300 days in office, Trump has scapegoated specific groups in society and called actively and repeatedly for a diminution of their rights and for usurpation of the Constitution and its underlying principles of freedom of speech and the press. As noted above, Trump’s targets for hate have included immigrants, African Americans and countless other citizens whose voting rights he has vigorously sought to impair or diminish in practice. He has also sought to treat transgendered troops serving honorably in the military as undeserving of full citizenship rights and more. Far from seeking to press a message of unity predicated on the extension and protection of rights for all Americans as a matter of principle, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic, Trump has sought instead to defame and demean portions of the population. He has done so in the name of a vicious and vacuous partisanship and under the cover of a specious claim of a stance of anti-political correctness. His often far-fetched and hypocritical stands constitute invitations for Americans to tear down the edifice of common political rights and shared governance responsibility to which Lincoln referred so memorably.

Trump’s presidency represents a test of whether the American people are any longer capable of self-governance. Lincoln argued that those who died at Gettysburg could best be venerated by ensuring that the democratic regime for which they had fought and died endured. He was also clear that only the nation’s self-governing populace could ensure that result and that that possibility would constitute a major ongoing challenge. Today, roughly 37 percent of Americans continue to be held in thrall by Trump’s demagoguery and in turn are holding the nation’s governing political party hostage to their stance.

It remains to be seen whether this share of the citizenry can be roused from their peculiar species of torpor or whether the nation will ultimately see the final degradation of the institutions for which so many fell at Gettysburg. Lincoln saw the cataclysm of the Civil War as the ultimate test of our mettle as a people, but perhaps that was not so. Today, we are witnessing a far more insidious assault on self-governance and the nation as a share of the population seems willing voluntarily to cede their birthright of citizenship and freedom in support of an immoral and hate filled demagoguery. The current conflict concerning the future of the American experiment is not being waged by military forces, but in the hearts and minds, particularly, of just over a third of the body politic. One must hope the outcome of this contest will ultimately favor freedom, but current trends are hardly auspicious.

I could never have imagined as a child that I would be writing these words and referring to Lincoln’s profound declaration in the hope of awakening some small number to the danger now befalling their polity. As I do so, I remain forever grateful to the teacher who required that I begin to grapple with the fragile underpinnings of our shared democracy by reflecting on Lincoln’s terse evocation of them so many years ago. Our country is nearing its commemoration of Thanksgiving as I write, first celebrated as an annual national holiday only a few days after Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. The nation then remained riven and at war. One may hope that this special day set aside for thanks will this year help to mend the deep-seated anger and division again so palpable in the country.

Notes

[1] Lincoln, Abraham, The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Online, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm Accessed, November 17, 2017.