It is a humbling experience to be standing here in Gettysburg, where Abraham Lincoln delivered the most eloquent, and perhaps the most influential, presidential address in American history.
We came today to continue a lifetime of homage to our greatest president.
Lincoln deserves that continuing homage because he continues to speak to us—today—in so many different and resonant ways.
Lincoln is the rough-hewn profile etched on the common penny . . . accessible, reassuring.
He is also the majestic figure, enshrined in a marble temple in Washington . . . austere and mythic.
And Lincoln lives here, too at Gettysburg . . . in the enduring echo of the words he wrote and spoke.
Brilliant, perfectly-matched words of compassion and courage. Words his reason sharpened into steel, and his heart softened into an embrace. Producing a profoundly moving elegy, and a thrilling rallying cry.
The fact that we are returning here to this hallowed ground—reminding ourselves of the awful consequences of division, and the limitless possibility of ideas—is “altogether fitting and proper.”
It is useful, too.
Especially in these days of national tentativeness and political timidity.
By commemorating a great man at his greatest moment, this shrine can offer us the inspiration we need to bring to our own stumbling efforts a sharper vision . . . a deeper compassion . . . a greater strength . . . a will to “here highly resolve”—as he put it—to face the tasks remaining before us, armed with Lincoln’s courage, and—if we are especially blessed—with some of his grace and efficacy.
One hundred and twenty-six years ago today, our president stood—not far from this exact spot. The smoke of the battle had barely cleared; stacks of coffins bearing Gettysburg’s battle casualties were still visible from the speakers’ platform; spent shells littered the ravaged landscape.
The awful burden of a bloody war lay so heavy on his shoulders, it literally bent Lincoln from his great height.
Lincoln’s voice may have strained that day: he was coming down with a mild case of smallpox. A short time later he was able to joke about it to persistent job-seekers; “Now I have something I can give everyone!” he told them.
But at Gettysburg, he could give only what was in his heart.
Somehow, despite the circumstances, Lincoln summoned the strength to offer a hymn to his country—a fervent prayer for liberty.
Thank God he did.
Without Gettysburg—without this great leader . . . without his powerful call for even greater sacrifice . . . the deeply wounded country might not have survived . . . or at least not have survived free.
History shows that the address we commemorate today did much more than praise the brave soldiers who died here. It redefined the war for union, as a war for democracy and human equality.
And a nation at war against itself was reminded here that while divine benevolence may endow us with liberty and equality, it would be through human means—through government—that these rights are secured, a work eminently worth the “last full measure of devotion” that Lincoln gave.
With the prose of the Emancipation Proclamation and the poetry of the Gettysburg Address—the war for union became a grand New Work. It became a struggle to achieve “a new birth of freedom” . . . under which every American could enjoy a fair chance in life . . . where people’s government would not “perish from the earth.”
Lincoln remains revered today—and we continue to pay him homage—not only because he believed these things a century and a half ago, but because we still believe these things today.
And because we understand today, just as Lincoln understood then, that the task of realizing this dream is still—as he expressed it—an “unfinished work.” A grand work not finished by war, or the peace that followed, or the century and a quarter of incredible progress since.
“It is for us, the living,” Lincoln said, “to take up the great task remaining before us.”
The task remains for us still.
If Lincoln were with us today, he might be surprised by the power generated by his brief few minutes here.
He would surely not be surprised that there is still so much more to do . . . more left to “here highly resolve” before we can claim that the work is finished, to ensure that the Gettysburg dead—and Lincoln himself—did not die in vain.
How I wish we had Lincoln here so we could seek his counsel and support as we take up that work. But we do not. For all the vivid re-creations of him here today, we will have to settle for the words he left behind.
Fortunately, those words—spun from the unique power of his mind and pen—will be a considerable help. If we read them correctly, they can illuminate the present, and guide us in the future.
What Lincoln spoke of here . . . his grand New Work . . . went beyond the destruction of slavery.
Here he gave meaning to a new vision for a country where every citizen would be guaranteed fair opportunity. In Lincoln’s earlier words, “an ever-widening path,” where “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all,” where all “should have an equal chance.”
Lincoln’s poetry set lofty goals for us.
He challenged us to dream.
He defined for us the soul of our unique experiment in government: where the full promise of equality and opportunity could not be considered kept until it included everyone.
That, said Lincoln, was the mission of our democracy. Without it, we had no democracy worth fighting for: with it, there would be no limits to what good we might yet achieve.
He himself—as every schoolchild knows—rose among us from poor beginnings. From a birthplace with floors of dirt. Where a single fire provided precious little warmth, and only the dimmest flickers by which to read and learn.
He saw no romance in these origins, only another challenge to overcome . . . to prove that opportunity, and ultimately success, could come to “any poor man’s son.”
But he wanted it for everyone, not just himself. He spent the rest of his life trying to give others the change he’d had himself, searching for ways to bring all within the embrace of the new freedom, the new opportunity.
“We . . . wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else,” he once said with typical directness and simplicity. “When one starts poor,” he explained, “as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows there is no fixed condition . . . for his whole life.”
And so it is today.
That is why we cannot be true to Lincoln—or to what Lincoln saw as our mandate and our justification—if we do not continually expand Lincoln’s vision to include all, to liberate the potential of all. All men, as Lincoln said . . . and all women, who in his day were denied full participation. Every poor man’s son . . . and every poor woman’s daughter.
I called this process the politics of inclusion some years ago, a politics as essential to the soul of this nation today as it was in his day, as necessary to our identity, as vital to our future. It was described for us by Lincoln over and over in his magnificent language. But it was more than beautiful words artfully arranged.
While Lincoln had the heart—and the pen—of a poet, he also had the hard, pragmatic mind of a lawyer. He was not content to describe the aspirations he held for this country in his glowing phrases, and wait for the world to improve itself. He knew he must act; that he must do what he could do, to “elevate the condition of man.”
“Elevate” it . . . his word. Not just through hope that some citizens would be good enough and generous enough to help those less fortunate. Not just through prayer—or soothing, hollow words of sympathy—but with the help of government, government as an instrument of good.
He was explicit about it.
In 1854 he had asked himself this question: “Why . . . should we have government?” And he answered: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.”
He gave some examples: public roads and highways, public schools . . . pauperism . . . orphanages.
He called the object of government the things that required “combined action.” He could have written those words yesterday: not much has changed.
There are still areas of privacy and religion that belong to us alone and individually—services that a state can do as well as the federal government, that a community, or individuals, can do better than a state, and therefore there is no need for government.
But, there are still many “legitimate objects of government.” Still problems that can be successfully dealt with only through “combined action.”
Think of the plague of drugs. The desperate need for education. For scientific and technological development. For housing. Health care. Roads and bridges. Research to find cures for diseases that doom infants—the “AIDS” babies . . . to six or seven years of life. Born to die!
Think of all these things that require our “combined action” if we are to widen the circle of opportunity to embrace Lincoln’s “humblest man.”
We need desperately today the power and clarity of Lincoln, to show us again how to be wise and honorable in the use of our collective strength. “Joint effort,” is what Lincoln recommended. To deal with what seemed to him then—what must seem to us now—“injustice.” To unite what Lincoln once had called “the house divided.”
Lincoln saved this nation from fragmenting itself. But winning the great war for unity did not preserve us from the struggle to keep us from fragmentation . . . from becoming shattered pieces of Lincoln’s dream.
I’d like to believe that Lincoln would see all too clearly the scope of work left unfinished today.
I’d like to believe that he’d take up the challenge of narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society, of reuniting the two cities where Americans live today—one rich and glittering city on the hill; the other full of pain and despair and lost potential; the new slavery.
Homeless people—warming themselves against killing winters, by sleeping next to the exhaust fans of huge city buildings! Setting up tiny cardboard villages under railroad trestles.
A million children a year leaving high school for the mean streets, part of a growing underclass surrounded by prostitution, drugs, violence. Most of them are doomed to a terrible culture of disorientation and depravity. Twenty-five million people unable to read the label on a bottle of poison or even a street sign. Thirty-seven million without any insurance that would provide the health care needed to keep them alive.
I’d like to believe Lincoln would chide a government whose response to all of this was tentative or timid or weak.
There’s no doubt he would be stunned to see a respected national weekly magazine devote its entire cover to the question “Is government dead?” And then—citing “missed opportunities and ignored challenges,” in a declaration of national futility, offer the embarrassing answer, “Yes, it appears so.”
Even during a wrenching Civil War, Lincoln made sure that government did its job. Lincoln called it a “noble effort.” He knew that if the government went on, it would signal that the nation would go on.
“We admit that . . . government is not charged with the duty of . . . preventing all the wrongs in the world,” Lincoln said. But he also added: “government rightfully may . . . and ought to redress all wrongs, which are wrongs to the nation itself.”
And so he defied a sizable portion of his fragile coalition, by issuing a proclamation that started us on the road to equal rights and full citizenship for all people.
He signed the Homestead Act that eventually gave away some 80 million acres of public lands—160 acres free to every family that wanted it, “So every poor man,” as he put it, “can have a home.”
He did other practical things like providing resources to farmers and students; building roads and bridges for a people who could not have built them without government.
We are not doing that adequately today . . . even though our prospects are far brighter now than they were a century and a quarter ago, our resources greater than those available to Lincoln’s America, if we know how to use them.
Beleaguered as he was, Lincoln could never have accepted the crises we face, and their impact on the national fabric: plagues of disease and hopelessness and squalor. Surely—possessing all that we do—he would not allow this work to remain unfinished. Not Lincoln.
The difference today, is that some people say that although these problems exist—and who can deny them?—Government cannot deal with them; government has done all it reasonably can: that government can’t be the solution because it’s the problem. That we have the will but not the wallet.
Others of us think that position amounts to waving a flag of surrender, and that surely Lincoln would not have tolerated it.
Lincoln knew we could all “imagine better” for our country. The question, he said, was “Can we all do better?”
Our answer must be the same as his: “Of course we can.” By facing our problems squarely and honestly, resolving to make the sacrifices needed to deal with them, and finally by coming together through government to do so.
We can invest in our people and our systems, as Lincoln did. Wisely. Prudently.
Making investments that give all our young people the chance to till the soil of their potential—that help them stay in school, and off drugs, and go on to college and productive lives.
Investments that give people who can’t have it now, access to medical care, especially preventive care.
Investments, just as Lincoln’s time, in housing and jobs that give people a sense of dignity and self-worth.
It would be foolish to argue today that a new homestead act for those in this nation who have not made it to the city on the hill, is too large a dream.
We have proven our capacity.
The same nation that pieced itself together after Appomattox, fought and triumphed in World Wars, covered the land from ocean to ocean with roads and rails . . . that gave opportunity to ten generations of immigrants who placed their dreams, and their trust, at our doorstep . . .
The same nation that inspired a new zest for democracy all over the world and even conquered outer space…
That same nation ought to do whatever needs to be done to extend the benefits of this miracle to all of us in this nation . . . and to give hope, encouragement, and support, even beyond . . . even to the whole rest of the world!
Remember, Lincoln cherished “special sentiments,” as he put it, for other countries, like ours, who “founded their institutions on the principle of the equal rights of men.”
Convinced that America was “the last, best hope of Earth,” he knew that by saving America for Americans, he was keeping democracy alive for the rest of the world.
Now, in our own time, the sleeping giant of democracy is re-awakening. Walls are crumbling before our eyes.
Lincoln surely would be thrilled to witness the democratic stirrings in places like Poland . . . Czechoslovakia . . . Hungary . . . Bulgaria . . . and now, East Germany.
And as Lincoln’s heirs, we must reach out to help—with sympathy; real support, not just empty gestures; and perhaps, too, with the gift of Lincoln’s own words to inspire a new generation of schoolchildren to protect the freedom their parents have just won.
On that score, I’m proud that the solidarity teachers of Poland came to my state and eagerly accepted our offer that we put together a Polish-language edition of Lincoln’s words on democracy. With the help of 41 distinguished Lincoln scholars, we are doing it. We will be sending it to Poland next fall. If these nations are ready to fight for freedom, they are surely ready to learn from Lincoln. As we have done; as we must continue to do, to finish Lincoln’s “unfinished work.”
And of course we can do it! If our dream is grand enough, our hearts large enough, and our memories keen enough.
We have more than enough wealth—and untapped capacity to nurture still more.
We prove that, when savings and loans fail. And when dramatic, terrible catastrophes strike: wars; hurricanes; earthquakes.
Surely then, we can do more for all the quiet catastrophes that every day take the lives of thousands of our people, and torment millions of others.
“We made the experiment,” Lincoln said early in his career, “and the fruit is before us. Look at it—think of it.”
And it’s still before us, ours to take.
On the very last day of his life, he said, “I have a very large idea of the . . . wealth of our nation. I believe it practically inexhaustible . . . its development has scarcely commenced. I am going to encourage that in every way.”
He died before he could finish the work. “It is for us, the living” to finish it—finish it for him . . . for us . . . and for all generations to come.
Thank you for allowing me this great privilege.
"Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania" is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.