It was seven score and 10 years ago. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his now legendary Gettysburg Address. Four months after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, the President returned to the site to remember the 51,000 Americans who lost their lives in the three-day battle, turning Pennsylvania farm fields into a battleground’s graveyard.
Arriving by train from Washington, D.C., President Lincoln delivered his historic speech at the dedication of the “Soldiers’ National Cemetery” where more than 3,500 Union soldiers were laid to rest.
In just 272 words, the President memorialized the enduring legacy of the most sacred principles of our republic. In 10 sentences, the 16th president immortalized the unique vision of the Founders, a nation “conceived in liberty” and paid tribute to those who gave their lives on the battlefield so “that the nation might live.”
This Veterans Day – Monday, November 11th – let’s remember the “unfinished work” described by President Lincoln and so “nobly advanced” 150 years ago by the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg and by all of those who have fulfilled a patriotic duty to serve our country in times of peace and war.
President Lincoln did not realize the power of his eulogy. Reportedly he reflected immediately afterwards: “That speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure.” In those days, scour was a farming reference that described a plow’s blade moving through the soil. A 19th century American inventor engineered a prairie sensation that scoured the rich Midwestern topsoil like a knife, falling smoothly from the polished steel plow. Like the “singing plow” invented by blacksmith John Deere, Lincoln’s words sing true to the soul of America 150 years later.
President Lincoln’s humility grossly underestimated the enduring power of his message that underscored our individual rights as Americans. His closing words remind us about the rights and responsibilities we bear as citizens of this great nation: that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”
The Gettysburg Address holds relevance today on its sesquicentennial anniversary. The United States was 87 years old when President Lincoln asked if any nation conceived in liberty “can long endure.” This summer, America celebrated 237 years of independence.
Our republic endures because its foundation is strong. The deeply held views of the electorate today focus largely on the size and scope of government. The ideological divide among voters can be seen in the politics and policies that shape American society. The no. 1 issue on the minds of the electorate arguably is getting the economy back on the right track. It’s not a coincidence that a flourishing economy and a bounty of good-paying jobs will help solve many of the challenges facing society and families working hard to make ends meet.
For generations, Americans have followed in the footsteps of their predecessors who blazed a trail of self-reliance to raise standards of living, to pursue achievement that knows no boundaries and to pledge allegiance to the rights and responsibilities of self-government. America has outlasted regional, cultural, political, religious, racial and social differences because we are united by the timeless principles on which our nation was founded and which are embodied by the Constitution. Ours is the first constitution based on the principle that we the people are sovereign with unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, delegating to our government only such power as necessary to secure these rights. Such a founding is exceptional in human history. We are a nation built to last on the enduring principles the Founders “brought forth on this continent” that have served America for more than two centuries.
President Lincoln needed only two minutes in his Gettysburg Address to remind Americans about our shared destiny. He called upon his fellow citizens to “take increased devotion to that cause for which (soldiers) gave the last full measure of devotion.”
From this Veterans Day to the next 11th of November – including each day in between and beyond – let’s carry on that exceptional legacy of the American spirit. Just as President Lincoln paid tribute to the idea of America’s exceptionalism, let us honor our men and women in uniform who have answered the call to serve and defend America’s freedom and individual liberty, especially those who have lost life and limb in the fullest measure of devotion to our country.