Lincoln still speaks to a nation still divided
For me, it began in grade school, the Harbor School in New London. There I learned the basic Abraham Lincoln story, his childhood, his honesty, his gentle power, his kindness.
Our school held annual Memorial Day festivities in those days. World War II was winding down. We were all given flags on sticks, and allowed, just for that day, to walk on the school's front lawn, which is where our parade wound up.
Our principal found a few Civil War veterans to sit on the outdoor stage for the ceremonies. Each year this delegation grew smaller, as our World War II veterans do today.
I am roughly the age those Civil War veterans were then. I try to understand how the Lincoln story seeped into my young bones and why it has remained there throughout my life.
I am not a historian. I am a retired teacher, sometimes college professor, sometimes sailing coach. One wintery day— several decades ago − I visited a small rural classroom as part of my professional duties. A one-room schoolhouse in far northern Vermont. The teacher happened to be reading about Lincoln to her 4th graders. As I sat in the back of the room, under the spell of this story, I felt my eyes well up with tears. I was momentarily overcome with a strong, yet totally unexpected emotional response to her familiar words, hearing them so many years later in that quiet classroom.
What was it about Lincoln that still possessed me?
As a grade schooler, I had memorized the Gettysburg Address and, as a teacher, I asked my students do the same. I have always been familiar with that piece of the larger story. I revisited Gettysburg (the speech) again recently, as the evening news dwelt on policing, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, and the dearth of leadership in America.
President Lincoln starts his brief speech by reminding his audience that liberty and equality are the conceptual basis for our government and that the (Civil) war is (was) a test of a such a government. He reminds his audience that America is only 87 years old.
He continues by honoring the soldiers who struggled in the recent battle and by affirming that it is good and right to be designating a section of the battlefield for their cemetery — this is the occasion for the gathering. The ostensible reason he is there.
But at that point, Lincoln catapults the moment into the stratosphere with a simple — yet profound — turn in his rhetoric. He asks us, the living, to take on the cause for which these soldiers have given "their last full measure of devotion."
His command, to us, his audience, is to continue the work these soldiers have left unfinished and not to allow our form of government to die there with them and become interred in that graveyard. He implores us not to let the experiment fail. And not just for ourselves, but for the future of governance on our planet. We must promise to redeem the loss.
Lincoln had the right, the duty, and the wisdom to speak that way then. We have the duty to speak this way now.
His request is as relevant today as it was when he made it. Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, voter suppression, George Floyd, all these issues, and more, are part of the "great task remaining before us," the unfinished work that Lincoln was talking about.
That task was not over at Gettysburg. It may never be put fully to rest. But, clearly, Lincoln gave his life for America. He calls on us now, down through the decades, to devote our lives to those principles — freedom and equality − summed up as "liberty and justice for all."
Born in New London, Richard Lathrop is lifelong educator, his work taking him to several states. He retired to his hometown.
The Gettysburg Address
Four score 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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. 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.
November 19, 1863
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