EDITORIAL: America’s greatest speech

On Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave voice to the most beautiful speech ever given on the arc and destiny of the American experiment. That date is the 156th anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. There are five copies that still exist in Abraham Lincoln’s own handwriting. Each one is a bit different, as Lincoln painstakingly crafted the message he wanted to deliver. The speech capped off the commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, which had been fought July 1-3, 1863. Gettysburg had been so momentous, the cost so great and the victory so solemn that a day of remembrance was due.

The Battle of Gettysburg!

In three days of battle 45,000 men were killed, injured, captured, permanently maimed or simply disappeared. In historian Bruce Catton’s book, “The Gathering Storm,” he spoke about the events leading to secession as “… putting the touch of fire to a sleepy little market town called Gettysburg.” Catton had a historian’s knack for putting a poetic touch to a wasteland of human misery. Gettysburg was the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

And now President Lincoln, not even the featured speaker at the day’s celebrations, rose to offer his thoughts. Lincoln was a troubled genius who kept his demons at a distance through tremendous force of will. Our 16th president was more than a remarkable human, he was a gift of grace to a nation that badly needed one. When you read Lincoln’s biography you repeatedly see that people of power and influence were taken by his worthiness. These men worked tirelessly to make Abraham Lincoln president of the United States.

The presidency was a job Lincoln accepted with sober deliberation. He was a hands-on president, who was a daily presence in the telegraph room of the War Department. He knew the carnage that was happening at the Battle of Gettysburg. The wounded were a daily, bloody, screaming, stinking reality in Washington, D.C. and he was there, in those hospitals, with those veterans, writing the letters to the widows. In his own words, “If there is a place worse than Hell, I am in it.”

And now he was asked to talk to the throng about the greatest battle of the Civil War.

The Gettysburg Address is only 272 words. It can be recited in 2 minutes. Lincoln did not equivocate as to right and wrong. He did not try to excuse, bestow legitimacy or give a rationale for the secessionists. He called wrong what it was and showed right for what it is. He chose to celebrate our American vision of a more perfect union. What had begun, in Lincoln’s mind, as a fight to save the Union, had evolved into a struggle for freedom and equality. Such a clash of cultures was going to be costly and this prescient man felt the weight — indeed — accepted the burden of that cost in human life.

The last sentence (five lines long) is the most eloquent vision of democracy that man has ever spoken. I present Lincoln’s own copy of the address. When you read these words, contemplate the character of the man who wrote them. Let’s all try to find what Lincoln called “… our better angels,” and keep the faith.

“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 battlefield 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 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. 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.”

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.