I am honored to take part in this 134th commemoration of the Gettysburg Address. In that great speech, and with characteristic modesty, Lincoln predicted “The world will little note or long remember what we say here.” We meet for the purpose of proving him wrong. Today, by tradition, we note and remember those 272 words that shall forever define our nation and what it means to be an American.
Yet before we mark what he said here, we must first acknowledge that we are in danger of losing part of the memory of what those brave men once did here.
Even as we note his immortal words, we must take note of how the battlefield over which they struggled—ground consecrated by their blood—today remains desecrated by an observation tower and two dilapidated and poorly sited buildings. We must note how, within those buildings, 40,000 artifacts are exposed to the ravages of damp and drafty air: The blue uniforms they wore are now fading. The shining rifles and swords they once carried are now rusting. The once-polished leather of their belts, saddles and bindings is now rotting apart.
Even as we recall the eloquence of his Address, we must acknowledge how the Cyclorama painting, “High Tide of the Confederacy,” grows soggy with humidity in a building that has structurally failed. Rain, wind and grit continue to erode names engraved on the headstones where our ancestors lie buried. Weeds overrun the hallowed landscapes on which they died.
This is how our history risks being forgotten. Not through some abstract, sweeping blow, but through thousands of small yet palpable cuts that bleed over time, seldom detected by the doctors of our heritage.
Americans care passionately about this sacred ground, which is why the National Park Service, under the Clinton Administration, has been dedicated to reversing its gradual deterioration. In April of 1995 we began a public planning process, open to all, in order to find the best way to preserve this shrine, to conserve its documents and artifacts and to improve the interpretation of Gettysburg in the full context of American history.
Our restoration program includes a proposal to enter a partnership on private land where groups like The National Geographic Society can help us to enhance visitor services. These partnerships are a relatively new idea and, as such, they deserve vigorous public discussion led by the historians, conservationists, and artifact curators. In the coming year, the National Park Service will also ask a distinguished group of American historians to assess our interpretive program and make recommendations on how we can improve our ability to make both what they did here and what he said here reverberate more deeply in the hearts and minds of every American.
For our history is dead only if we neglect it. It comes alive as we look and listen. As Lincoln said, “we cannot escape history,” and through his timeless Gettysburg Address he speaks anew to each of us today.
When Lincoln, taking five bold words from the Declaration of Independence, spoke of a new nation where “all men are created equal,” he set our course toward the freedom and the opportunity shared today by all Americans. Freedom and opportunity have made us, again in Lincoln’s words, “the last, best hope of earth.”
Yet despite the military and strategic outcome of the battle here, Lincoln spoke at an inconclusive moment in history. This cemetery was not yet complete. Some dead still lay unburied. The Civil War raged on with the Union divided. Slavery remained an institution. And human equality remained a purely hypothetical concept.
So he called on “us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work” and “to the great task remaining before us.” By “us” he meant not just those living on November 19, 1863, but those of us living today, and all future generations who will ever one day live in America.
His challenge remains our unfinished task: ensure both freedom and equality of opportunity for every single American citizen. To meet that challenge, President Clinton, in his call for a national dialogue on race relations, is asking all Americans to reflect deeply, to speak thoughtfully with each other, and to do our part to continue the work of reconciliation that Lincoln here began.
By doing our share both to restore the memory of what they did here and to advance the vision of what was said here, I am confident that Americans who gather here in centuries to come will better reflect in our country’s progress toward Lincoln’s fond hope of forming a more perfect Union.
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