The Gettysburg Address 150 Years Ago And Now: Lincoln, Obama and The Great Task Remaining

Gettysburg Address

One hundred fifty years later, President Lincoln’s Great Task remains uncompleted.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the most memorable and quoted speeches ever. This speech was so important to him that he created, in long hand, five versions. The best known, the Bliss Version, is on display at the Lincoln Room of the White House.

We focus on the words, especially the first words, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Many remember parts of the third paragraph, “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 hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.”

Others remember the most striking phrase of the fourth paragraph, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but not the whole fourth paragraph.

“It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, 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.”

208,400 soldiers fought at Gettysburg. Almost 25%, 51,112 died.

2% of the US population at that time, 620,000 men died in the Civil War. 2% of the current population would be over 6.6 million deaths.

The combustible mix of guns and racism has always been a part of America.  Recently, a unique interpretation of the Second Amendment, by the progressive/liberal commentator and talk show host, Thom Hartmann, stated  the Founding Fathers’ concerns about guns was really about containing slave rebellions.

“By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings. As Dr. Carl Bogus points out, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias.

If the anti-slavery folks in the North had figured out a way to disband – or even move out of the state – those southern militias, the police state of the South, would collapse. And, similarly, if the North were to invite into military service the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern economic and social systems altogether.

These two possibilities worried southerners like James Monroe, George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).

Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8, of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves. ”

Even if you agree with that interpretation of the Second Amendment, it wasn’t the only reason for the provisioning of weapons. Having armed citizens ready to fight the British Army was kind of important, too. Slavery existed in the time of the Founding Fathers. But was it totally acceptable to all of them, morally? No.

“Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime. He thought abolition of slavery might be accomplished by the young men of the next generation. They were qualified to bring the American Revolution to its idealistic conclusion because, he said, these young Virginians had ‘sucked in the principles of liberty as if it were their mother’s milk.’ ”

There is a wonderful video of the five living Presidents, along with various political, news and show business luminaries saying the Gettysburg Address . This video shows that there can be agreement across the current racial, political and social divisions towards a common goal.

For many reasons – dealing with war, racial animus, accusatory political opposition and personal isolation because of what he believes is best for the country – the Gettysburg Address has special meaning for President Barack Obama. Without the courageous, moral and just actions of Abraham Lincoln, there would not be an African-American President today. President Obama wrote this note (also in longhand) about what Lincoln’s speech means to him:

“In the evening, when Michelle and the girls have gone to bed, I sometimes walk down the hall to a room Abraham Lincoln used as his office. It contains an original copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s own hand.

I linger on these few words that have helped define our American experiment: ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’

Through the lines of weariness etched in his face, we know Lincoln grasped, perhaps more than anyone, the burdens required to give these words meaning. He knew that even a self-evident truth was not self-executing; that blood drawn by the lash was an affront to our ideals; that blood drawn by the sword was in painful service to those same ideals.

He understood as well that our humble efforts, our individual ambitions, are ultimately not what matter; rather, it is through the accumulated toil and sacrifice of ordinary men and women – those like the soldiers who consecrated that battlefield – that this country is built, and freedom preserved. This quintessentially self-made man, fierce in his belief in honest work and the striving spirit at the heart of America, believed that it falls to each generation, collectively, to share in that toil and sacrifice.

Through cold war and world war, through industrial revolutions and technological transformations, through movements for civil rights and women’s rights and workers rights and gay rights, we have. At times, social and economic change have strained our union. But Lincoln’s words give us confidence that whatever trials avail us, this nation and the freedom we cherish can, and shall, prevail.”

That’s all too true, Mr. President. However, there is one lesser-known part of the Gettysburg Address that needs to be taken equally seriously.

“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.”

So what has really changed in 150 years? Not much, just additional skin colors into the mix of the racial animus. Let us be very clear and very honest, the main right-wing fear, especially among male Caucasians, is becoming the minority in this country. They believe their idea of what is the government of the people by the people, for the people, is still under attack. For them, because of  the wrong resolution of the Civil War, the country is in risk of collapse. These angry white men want a do-over or they’ll take their guns and go home, a/k/a secession.

Their way to fight back is, and always has been, through intolerance, violence and intimidation. Why else are the Koch Brothers’ and the 1 percenters, through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), pushing through legislation in various states about “protection of gun rights,” (because Obama is really going to take all the guns away) other than to further stoke this Caucasian male anger? For the Koch Brothers, it is really all about protecting their wealth. ALEC is their form of a private militia.

The 1 percenters,  through shadow organizations, are spending money freely in advertising and their political organizations to ensure against being overtaken by the new majority of  non-whites, women and the young. They are battling are to harm the new majority  through enacting voter suppression lawsstopping the Affordable Health Care Act and privatizing or cutting public services, such as schools, public transportation, prisons, and social welfare programs and services.

Is what is going on in the current poisonous and divisive socio-political environment dedicated to the unfinished work that was so nobly advanced? Unfortunately, no. Our government, in the post Citizens United era, has become of big business, bought by big business, for big business.

In light of this hatred, it is remarkable that the United States has twice elected a non-white president. How Barack Hussein Obama has been treated while in office is not. The enmity towards Obama is one more sign that racism is still alive 150 years after those who died fighting for and against it. The side that was fighting against freedom from slavery lost then and still will lose today.

There will be no do-over. That is not the great task remaining before us. Unfortunately, being dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal still is.

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