Today is not only the 137th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which we shall hear again in a few moments, it is also the first such anniversary in a new millennium. Another millennium anniversary will not come for a thousand years. Therefore it is altogether fitting and proper that we should reflect on the meaning of Lincoln’s life for the new millennium and particularly his two-minute speech right here on this hallowed ground.
Today, we take for granted the existence of the United States as one nation, indivisible. We take for granted the stability of our democratic form of government, and the freedom and equal constitutional rights of Americans. None of these things could be taken for granted when Lincoln spoke here 137 years ago. They were all contested, violently contested in a war that cost 620,000 lives. During the many dark days of that war, days that tested Lincoln’s will and determination to the utmost, it looked like the nation brought forth four score and seven years before Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address might indeed perish from the earth. The men who gave the last full measure of devotion, under Lincoln’s leadership as commander in chief, assured the legacy of a nation united, free, and with a government of, by, and for the people; a legacy that we therefore cannot take for granted today. The battle of Gettysburg became the hinge of fate on which turned the fate of that nation, and its new birth of freedom.
Seventeen months after Lincoln spoke here, he was the victim of an assassin’s bullet. When he breathed his last at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton intoned: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton’s remark was more prescient than he knew, for Lincoln’s image and his legacy became the possession not only of future ages of Americana but of people of other nations as well. Without Union victory in the Civil War, without Lincoln’s leadership to make that victory possible, there might be today in North America two or several dis-United States. What kind of world would have emerged from the two World Wars of the 20th century without the existence of a strong United States? The answer is anybody’s guess, but we can be sure that it would not be the world we are living in at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Thus when Lincoln told Congress in his first annual message -- today we call it the State of the Union address -- that “This struggle is not altogether for today -- it is for a vast future also” -- he was more right than he could have known.
In another crucial respect, Lincoln’s achievements resonated into a vast future. When he became president, four million African-Americans were slaves. Four years later, when John Wilkes Booth’s bullet dispatched Lincoln into the ages, they and their posterity were forever free. The significance of this fact, this new birth of freedom that Lincoln heralded here at Gettysburg, was best expressed a century after Lincoln’s address, by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the famous march on Washington in August 1963. King had tried to persuade President John F. Kennedy to make an important symbolic gesture in favor of civil rights by issuing a second Emancipation Proclamation on the 100th anniversary of the first one. Kennedy declined, so when King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, it was the 16th president whom he praised, not the 34th: “Fivescore years ago,” said King, “a great American, in whose shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”
I think Lincoln would have been surprised by the reverence accorded to him by future generations. But he did have a profound sense of history and of the place his generation of Americans would have in history. In many of his statements and speeches during the Civil War, in which he defined the meaning of that war for America’s present and future, Lincoln invoked the past to inspire the present. He himself had a reverence for the generation that had conceived and brought forth the nation in 1776. The Civil War, for him, was the great testing whether his own generation in 1861 was worthy of that heritage from 1776. Would they preserve that heritage, or would they allow it to perish from the earth? As early as May 1861, Lincoln said that “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”
It was here at Gettysburg, of course, that Lincoln made the most eloquent and effective statement of this idea. In two minutes -- considerably less than I have spoken already -- he not only managed to bring together the past, present, and future, but also to weave in two other sets of three images each: continent, nation, battlefield; and birth, death, rebirth. The Gettysburg Address is so familiar to us -- many of you virtually know it by heart, like the Lord’s Prayer, that we sometimes say or hear it without really thinking about the meaning. When you hear our modern-day Mr. Lincoln deliver those familiar words again today, think about their meaning with respect to these three sets of three images, each interwoven to make an unforgettable pattern:
Four score and seven years in the past, said Lincoln, our fathers gave birth on this continent to a nation conceived in liberty. Today, our generation, said Lincoln, faces a great test whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, can survive. In dedicating the cemetery on this battlefield, the living must take inspiration from those who gave the last full measure of devotion in order to finish the task they so nobly advanced.
Life and death in this passage have a paradoxical but metaphorical relationship: men died that the nation might live, yet metaphorically the old Union also died, and with it would die the institution of slavery. After these deaths, the nation must have a new birth of freedom so that government of, by, and for the people that our fathers brought forth in the past shall live into the vast future, even unto the next millennium.
Will the legacy of one nation, indivisible, that Lincoln left us still be around in another 137 years? No one can say. Perhaps the best words to express what that legacy means today were those written by a 17-year-old girl from Texas a few years ago, in an essay contest connected to a Lincoln exhibit at the Huntington Library and the Chicago Historical Society. This girl’s forbearers had immigrated to the United States from India in the 1960’s. She wrote that “if the United States was not in existence today, I would not have the opportunity to excel in life and education. The Union was preserved, not only for the people yesterday, but also for the lives of today.” Let us take inspiration from her words to continue the unfinished task so nobly advanced by those who gave the last full measure on this battlefield.
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