It is a privilege greater than words can express to be invited to speak here today as we honor the thousands of men who gave “the last full measure of their devotion” on this ground and as we reflect upon the words of President Abraham Lincoln, words which capture the essential core of the American idea.
As a boy – like many of you – I memorized President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and learned to appreciate its message and economy of style. Delivered here mainly to the townspeople of Gettysburg, a people still stunned by the devastation of the battle of four months earlier and struggling to create this cemetery, President Lincoln’s two and one-half minute address was a testament for all time, to all people, everywhere, who would be free and self-governing.
The temptation is always strong for the speaker on an occasion such as this to address contemporary events by interpreting words spoken long ago – to reach to make a contemporary point out of the ideas of President Lincoln – to see today’s world through his eyes. I do not know how President Lincoln would view us today. Nor do I know what he would say about us if he were here today. It would be presumptuous of me to try to speculate about that. But I do know there were eternal truths in the President’s words – they require no projection, no interpretation – they are themselves everlasting truths, universal truths, that were then and are now at the very center of the ethic, the contract, the nation that is America.
One of those ideas is the fact of the nation itself – of a whole unified nation – of a diverse people holding together over the generations in the face of tremendous and terrible challenges. President Lincoln said, “Our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation.” He said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
President Lincoln captured the transcendent, redemptive power of the nation in his words here 131 years ago today because he had staked everything for that idea. He sought to avoid a war, then committed the Union’s precious lifeblood when war was unavoidable. He suffered condemnation and vilification, and saw so much death – to keep the nation whole.
We must never lose sight of the nation as a whole. Despite the moments of national division, argument, and strife over the decades – over matters of trade or foreign entanglements, civil rights or abortion, or the role of government or the role of money – we must first be one nation.
As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, I have traveled widely throughout America. I have visited the throbbing financial megacenters of the Eastern seaboard and the grimy industrial plants of the Midwest. I have traveled from the mining towns and rocky hillsides of western Pennsylvania to the sweeping grandeur where the breadbasket of the Great Plains meets the towering Rocky Mountains. I have visited the great universities and medical centers as well as the poor Colonias of the Southwest border and the Native American villages of the Alaskan tundra. I have seen poor Americans in West Virginia’s rural hollows and met homeless people who sleep in the dark tunnels of New York’s subways. But everywhere I have gone, I have learned this: In good fortune or in misfortune, in trial or in triumph, we are first one nation.
There is such a thing as the American idea: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. For that idea – the nation – men died here. President Lincoln knew it could be no other way. The nation – the principle of America as one whole nation – had to be saved. It is a lesson for our time and for the future.
A second idea about which the President spoke, and which has come to us across the ages, is that in America no person inherits a natural power over another. President Lincoln knew that there could be no true democracy as long as one man could, by gift of nature, stand astride another, work him as a slave, treat him as a possession. He said, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Novelist Michael Shaara tells us of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers. It fell to Colonel Chamberlain, in the heat of summer in 1863, in his 34th year, to defend the hill to the south of us known as Little Round Top. Novelist Shaara, in The Killer Angels his award winning book about the battle of Gettysburg, seeks to help us understand Chamberlain’s thoughts on the eve of the great conflict, as Chamberlain pondered why he must fight. “Chamberlain’s faith was simple,” Shaara wrote. He believed in the dignity of man. He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last, a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here, and it would spread eventually over all the earth. But it had begun here. He was fighting for the dignity of man and in that way he was fighting for himself. If men were equal in America, all these former Poles, and English, and Czechs, and blacks, then they were equal everywhere. And so, it was not even patriotism, but a new faith.”
We believe these things about America. As the son of an immigrant mother, I believe it with all my being. My faith in America is complete. To me it means each of us is free – to be responsible, free to strive and dream and hope and act, free to work and learn and pray and nurture and love our children and chart their path.
One hundred and thirty-one years ago, people died here for this idea of every person, of each person as final master of his or her destiny. We can do no greater honor to their memory than to hold tightly to the idea today. Surely, we can hold to it, sustain it, expand it for all Americans, and share it with mankind around the world.
A third idea upon which President Lincoln touched was the American idea of purposeful service. He said, “It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…” I once heard a pastor say, “Associate yourself with a cause that is bigger than yourself – that transcends your time – and then you can live a purposeful life.” I am reminded of the moving gospel hymn:
“If I can help somebody as I travel along,
If I can cheer somebody with word or song,
If I can steer somebody when he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.”
It is a compelling idea. Help somebody – give life purpose. So simple, and yet so powerful. It is a notion which enables us to think better of ourselves and to act better toward each other.
It is this spirit of purposeful service which prompted a 73 year old former president, President Eisenhower, to drive himself from Gettysburg to Washington the morning after his successor – JFK – was assassinated to offer help and counsel to the new president.
It is this spirit of purposeful service that prompts another former president to give generously of his time to take hammer and nails in his hands, to build homes for less fortunate fellow citizens as does President Carter.
It is this spirit of purposeful service that compels yet another former president – President Reagan – to share with the American people the news of the suffering he and his family are beginning to experience, in hopes of helping others who must face the same terrible disease.
It is the spirit that moves millions of other Americans to reach out to each other every day. We must cherish the ideal of service. We must steep our lives in it – in our neighborhoods, in our cities, across our nation.
The men who died at Gettysburg understood service, understood duty, understood their purpose. They were frightened and horrified that fateful day. They had to be. Artillery barrages, cannon fire, gunshots at close range, bayonets slashing, shouting, and confusion. Blood and pain. Broken bodies and sheer exhaustion. They accepted their duty, they fought, and gave their final breath.
Would they have liked to have lived to help open up the expanse of the American West in the years ahead? To stake a land claim in Oklahoma or California? Would they have liked to build the great cities and try their fortunes? To clear a rocky farm and buy cows and horses? To kiss a sweetheart, to marry, to exult on the birth of children, to kiss the forehead of a grandchild, to reminisce in old age with grandsons on a peaceful porch at sunset? Of course! But they fought here and they died here, and they did their duty. And because they did their duty, so can we do ours. Because they did their duty, so must we do ours.
And so we gather today to stop and reflect on the eternal truths for which they died – to remember the eternal truths memorialized by President Lincoln – to rededicate ourselves to the eternal truths that constitute the fiber and the spirit of the America we know and love.
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