Our concluding article discussing President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will attempt to breakdown his speech in order to consider his thoughts behind each sentence. This will not be an in-depth study, but merely a cursory review and interpretation of his “a few appropriate remarks.”
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Lincoln’s favorite document, the Declaration of Independence, was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, eighty-seven years prior to the date of the national cemetery dedication at the Union center of the battlefield, Cemetery Hill. Like Jefferson, Lincoln expected slavery to eventually die out in America. In 1858, he felt that preventing slavery’s spread to new territories was the first step toward putting it on the “course of ultimate extinction.” But recognizing the difficulty “to get rid of slavery in any satisfactory way,” he did not call for immediate abolition of slavery and the granting of equal citizenship to freed slaves. Lincoln’s first impulse was to free the slaves and send them to Liberia; however, he realized the impossibility of such a colonization plan.
In 1862, Lincoln had proposed individual emancipation during which most black people could have remained “underlings” for an indefinite period. But now he was looking forward to immediate abolition and equal rights for all. Highly regarded Pulitzer Prize-winning Reconstruction expert Eric Foner of Columbia University stated that Lincoln “began during the last two years of the wars to imagine an interracial future for the United States.” Lincoln had always hated slavery. Once he introduced the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, slaves living in slave-holding states in the South that were controlled by Union military force were forever free. Also, blacks were free to enter military service. By war’s end approximately 170,000 served as United States Colored Troops. Now, Lincoln staked his career and reputation on defending their freedom earned by fighting for their country.
Lincoln must have had these thoughts in mind as he confidently quoted the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence’s precious words, “all men are created equal.”
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any other Nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
The Declaration of Independence brought a new kind of country with a different kind of political philosophy. But as Lincoln spoke, its “Great Experiment” was being tested as never before. Could it survive in the face of Civil War? Could this new nation founded in liberty and equality endure? Strong leadership prevailed with President Lincoln at the helm. His unwavering mindset that slavery must be eradicated and the Union must be preserved carried him to an overwhelming victory in the 1864 election.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
The July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg was the largest and most nation-changing battle fought during the Civil War. Many historians consider this battle to be the turning point of the war. Even today, it is the most visited Civil War battlefield in the United States. Its legacy lives on through the interpretation led by the National Park Service.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
What was at stake was not simply lives, money, or government sovereignty, but the heart and principles upon which the nation was founded. The seventeen-acre plot of land for the new national cemetery on the crest of Cemetery Hill not only was to serve “as a final resting place” for the Union soldiers who died in the battle, but also to express the gratitude of the nation they fought to preserve. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address brought clarity of purpose to the war in general and reasons for the dedication of the site for the “bivouac of the dead.”
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
Again, President Lincoln’s address clearly brings to the hearts and minds of the attendees the reason for the national cemetery on these grounds.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
In these first three sentences of the last paragraph, perhaps the most important part of his speech, Lincoln recognizes that whatever he or anyone else could say during this dedication celebration should be considered mere words. These words are nothing compared to what the soldiers gave as “their last full measure” during the battle. Its grounds hold the shed blood of over 51,000 casualties.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work while they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
As mentioned in the previous articles, David Wills planned the dedication of the new national cemetery. The idea was for the speakers, musicians, primary organizers, and audience to participate in dedicating these seventeen acres of hallowed ground as the final resting place for brave Union dead. But Lincoln disagreed. He properly stated that through the shed blood of the dying soldiers strewn across the battlefield, the cemetery had already been dedicated and the hallowed ground consecrated, by means of their supreme sacrifice.
The “great task remaining before us” refers to winning the war thus defeating slavery and preserving the Union. He charged the attendees to dedicate themselves to the “unfinished work” that these devoted soldiers lying in rest fought and died for. The ideals of liberty and equality that the Founding Fathers brought forth through the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution gave soldiers a dedicated cause to be preserved, their final call for liberty.
Lincoln told the audience that the Union must prevail and must never relinquish the fight for preservation of the Union and the destruction of slavery. They must never make concessions to the southern cause. To do that would betray the supreme sacrifice made and the purpose, under God, of the soldier’s strife would be for naught.
Similar words were spoken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. They, like Lincoln, were strong leaders who refused to yield to political pressure to end the war and concede to the will of their enemies. If such a stand was not taken, these brave men would have died “in vain.” This alone was a strong justification to continue fighting against the Southern cause for state’s rights and for the preservation of the Union and abolishment of slavery. The government forged “by the people” must prevail and never “perish from the earth".