SPEECH OF GOVERNOR WHITMAN
Let me begin with a word of thanks to the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, as well as the National Park Service, the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute. You have done a remarkable job of honoring the life and ideals of our 16th President, and preserving the memory of those who rest here.
I am very pleased to share the podium today with Dr. James McPherson. He is not only one of our country’s preeminent Civil War scholars and a Pulitzer Prize winner, but also a fellow New Jerseyan. Thank you, Dr. McPherson, for giving us such outstanding historical scholarship on our nation’s greatest ordeal.
During this great conflict, on this battlefield, thousands gave their lives so that our nation could enjoy “a new birth of freedom.” From the carnage at Gettysburg rose the phoenix of hope for the future of humankind.
To take the road to Gettysburg is to arrive at the very essence of this great nation, and to understand how Abraham Lincoln’s words changed us forever. To follow the road to Gettysburg is to reach a hallowed place in which Lincoln imparted his vision that a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Such a profound notion so simply stated.
Lincoln’s words bridged the gap between the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the legal concepts embodied in our Constitution.
The Declaration says: “we hold these truths to
be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The Preamble begins with, “We the people of the United States.” Lincoln’s words crystallized what the Founding Fathers had created in these cherished documents.
He put forth the proposition that we the people of this nation bear an unending responsibility--a sacred life-long duty--to recognize and uphold the rights of every one
of our citizens. When he called us to the task of honoring those who fought and died here, Lincoln knew the challenge was great.
He knew that a union built on its people is only as strong as those people. Individually and collectively we are empowered through the freedoms we enjoy. Lincoln knew the power of this democracy. He knew the power of this great idea that we must never let perish.
Lincoln called on all the living to participate fully in this great concept in order for it to survive and grow. To me, this is the essence of the Gettysburg Address: it is Lincoln’s call to all of us to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work that those who fought here gave their lives to preserve.
We don’t have to look far for direction on how best to fulfill the mission Lincoln defined here. In fact, we just have to look to the recent election, which provides an excellent example of what a democracy demands of its people.
Today, as citizens of the United States, we have the right and privilege to vote, something that did not exist for more than half the adult population at the time of Lincoln’s address here. It is a right that, even in this country, people have fought and died for.
But with this right comes the responsibility to vote. The 2000 election may never be forgotten—not because it was a close contest, but because it demonstrated the power of the vote. It will be remembered because so many left to others the decision that defines us as a free people. Six score and seventeen years after Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg we have been reminded, once again, that a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” requires our active participation.
We are a nation blessed. We are the “last, best hope of earth.”
Our government doesn’t have all the answers, and it never will. We must recognize that our democracy is only as strong as “we the people” make it.
It’s been said of Lincoln that he was the “true history of the American people…the pulse of twenty millions throbbing in his heart, the thought of their minds articulated by his tongue.”
At this cemetery, 137 years ago, Lincoln articulated the sacred mission of the American people. His words have now seeped into the fabric of a nation of people who treasure freedom.
Wherever our nation has carried the torch of freedom, we have heard his voice. His words echo through time. Simple words, common words, they have become a hymn for all generations.
Just as we remember those who died here, let us re-dedicate ourselves to the words that captured the essence of our nation. Let us live the ideals he articulated by participating fully in a nation conceived in liberty. Let us use these words to sound the bell of freedom and democracy the world over—starting here, starting now, starting with our commitment to use the most powerful, non-lethal weapon available in the world: the vote. Only then can we truly honor Lincoln’s resolve “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
"Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania" is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.