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On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln went down to officially dedicate a National Cemetery of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The site itself was one of the most violent spaces of battle in the Civil War, with estimates of over 50,000 Union and Rebel soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, from that single stretch of battle. After a two hour speech by one of the great orators of the day, Edward Everett, Lincoln stood up and spoke for just over two minutes.

There have been books written about the “Gettysburg Address,” and it’s lasting impact on the history of American ideas. There are myriad reasons to parse through the short and powerful speech. And as important as it is to understand the history of why and when these words were spoken for the first time, the words themselves, the sentiment and ideas that live inside of them, endure long beyond history. They are the modern ideal we, as a country, in our best moments, aspire to.

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.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

America’s history of using “war” and the metaphors of war to push ideas has always been a problematic one; and yet, as we sit here remembering this almost eight score old speech, people are  still dying and families are being separated, in search of America’s promise. The color of people’s skin continues to determine their status as citizens, and a political party—embracing the Confederate flag—works desperately, with no compunction whatsoever, to restrict the “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” Lincoln spoke so eloquently about.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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