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Words to live by

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One hundred and fifty years ago today — on Thursday, Nov. 19, 1863 — President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most important speeches in American history.

Standing on the grounds at Gettysburg, Pa., where four months before Union troops had defeated Confederate forces in a pivotal battle of the Civil War, the president began with the now-famous words: “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.”

The words are familiar to most Americans. Generations of schoolchildren have memorized them. Historians have studied their meaning. They are inscribed on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are imprinted on American culture.

Yet President Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg was not intended to be the main event of that occasion. Those who organized the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg asked the president to “formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” This he did, and much more.

The main speaking duties fell to Edward Everett, a renowned politician from Massachusetts, diplomat, scholar and one of the foremost orators of his time. Mr. Everett did not disappoint. He meticulously researched the topic and spoke for more than two hours, using by one count 13,607 words to solemnize the occasion.

Mr. Everett’s “Gettysburg address” was well received. He used flowery language typical of the day, and people expected long orations for such a ceremony.

One can only imagine the somber atmosphere at the commemoration that day. The times were grim and uncertain, calling for direction and wisdom from America’s leaders. The two armies that clashed at Gettysburg suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties; an estimated 8,000 soldiers died on the battlefield and others later succumbed to their wounds. At Gettysburg, the summer and fall following the July 1-3 battle had been spent identifying and burying the dead.

The war was ongoing. The speakers at Gettysburg endeavored to put the horrifying events in perspective and instill hope for the days to come.

When it was President Lincoln’s turn to speak that afternoon, he began by reminding the audience of America’s founding principles — liberty and equality — as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. He described the Civil War — and the North’s quest to preserve the Union — as a test of whether a nation founded on such values “can long endure.”

Noting the occasion, he said: “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 the nation might live.”

Such a dedication is the right thing to do, he said, but essentially impossible. The ground is already hallowed: “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far beyond our poor power to add or detract.”

The president then tied the sacrifice of those who fought at Gettysburg to the work that remained to be completed. He called on the audience and the nation to embrace more fully the “cause” for which the soldiers “gave their last full measure of devotion.”

The cause? Not just preserving the union, but resolving “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.”

With stirring and memorable words, the president redefined the war as a struggle for equality for all America’s citizens and a battle to sustain the highest principles of American democracy. Those phrases, those thoughts have transcended their time and are remembered today as the nation seeks to live up to its cherished ideals and principles.

It is worth nothing that Edward Everett wrote President Lincoln the next day, praising the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of his remarks, saying: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The president replied: “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little that I did say was not entirely a failure.”

One must read the speech aloud to fully appreciate it. Think of how Abraham Lincoln, largely self-educated on the American frontier, came to leadership and guided the nation through its most perilous crisis. The vision that he articulated at Gettysburg, the powerful simplicity of his words, charted America’s course through rough waters and speak to us today.

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