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These honored dead

When Abraham Lincoln rose to deliver his brief remarks on the battlefield at Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, in 1863, the United States was a nation split in two.

So irreconcilable were the differences between the slave states and the so-called free states that, in the name of self-determination but clinging to deep and cruel racism, the South seceded.

Lincoln recognized, however, that all who gave their lives in the Civil War, at that point in its third year, were Americans. His unforgettably beautiful tribute honors the bravery, loyalty and totality of their sacrifices and reminds us what it has cost others that we might, to this day, be the United States of America.

Today, we honor those who fought in the monumental battle of D-Day, June 6, 1944, to save Europe and indeed the world as a place where freedom might live. Many of them died when they stormed the coast of Normandy that day. They fought on beaches coded with American names — Omaha, Utah — and knew they were battling for their homeland. Of those who survived, only a few veterans remain. We honor them today.

Lincoln's tribute to the living and the dead of 1863 is an equally fitting memorial for those who fought 75 years ago. His very brief address contains these words:

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. 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. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not 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. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which 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 — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln was a president for the ages. A Republican, he saw peril in the deep divisions that rent the nation for a time into two countries. Meeting that danger mattered more to him than any label other than "American" or any loyalty other than to the republic.

Since the end of World War II presidents have paid their respects at Normandy. Each had his own concepts of sacrifice, loyalty and gratitude to those he honored. We hope and trust that each would have resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain.

Great power is best served by great humility. Lincoln saw that any action he would ever take as president was less than the last full measure of devotion from each of those who died in war. Every president must come to terms with that truth or be unworthy of his office.

More than a century and a half of American history has been added to the four score and seven years that President Lincoln cited in the opening of his address, but this remains true:

...our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

While we are not in civil war and pray that we will never again be, the United States is once again deeply divided. Honoring those who died in its defense means we must long remember, as Abraham Lincoln urged us, that our duty is to keep freedom alive  — no matter the struggles testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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