Saturday, November 19, is the 148th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 delivery of the Gettysburg Address. It will likely bring a smile to the face of any admirer of Lincoln to know that the President’s first words to his friend and bodyguard, Ward Lamon, after delivering his brief remarks were, “that speech won’t scour.” Lincoln was utilizing a farmer’s vernacular for plowing untilled soil, and by “won’t scour” he meant that the speech was a dud!
Of course, this is the same Abraham Lincoln who, years earlier, had lamented to his best friend, Joshua Speed, that he was too depressed to go on living, but for the fact that he didn’t think he had yet done anything memorable in his life. Thank goodness he chose in the earlier instance to try to do something worth remembering! Likewise at Gettysburg, perhaps his immediate disappointment with the speech was a good motivator to go back to the drawing (writing) board to compose more masterpieces, such as his Second Inaugural Address, 16 months later.
Since we’ve so recently celebrated Veterans Day and are about to celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s worth remembering why Lincoln was at Gettysburg that day. He spoke those immortal 272 words at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery, where the carnage of the previous July 1-3, 1863, was still being cleaned up, including the burial of human remains and disposal of dead military horses and local livestock.
Among the inspirational themes struck that day was possibly the most eloquent statement of appreciation ever given to U.S. veterans, and we should remember it every year for every generation of our fellow citizens who served.
Having just said “(t)he brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated” this ground through their service and sacrifice, Lincoln then called upon his fellow Americans to honor those veterans in the following manner:
“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… 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.”
Although Lincoln was obviously speaking of a particular group of “living and dead” brave veterans, his words are perfectly applicable today, and they are worth reflecting upon repeatedly and carefully.
We best honor our veterans, and best appreciate our nation, when reminding ourselves that we really do believe our unique “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is not only the best, but also the only, way to realize the vision Lincoln had for “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
So, when I’m subjected (admittedly through my own weakness for political chatter) to the pompous rantings of Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, and Lawrence O’Donnell, along with the Tea Party “scholars” and the “Occupy” (all nice parks, apparently) extremists, I’ll try to remember that there is a broad range of American viewpoints in between those screeching outliers. And it’s that broad middle ground of us which comprises the nation our veterans have continually defended, which is the same nation Lincoln preserved and rededicated through a “new birth of freedom,” and the very same one for which all of us should be thankful.
On Thanksgiving Thursday, while we watch football, ski, or simply “chillax,” as my daughter says, a good prayer of thanks would be a rededication by each of us to those sometimes annoying and bothersome tasks, institutions, and mutual respect for one another that make up civic virtue and governance.
I often think November 19 should be a national holiday since the Gettysburg Address articulates both our appreciation to our veterans and the moral underpinnings of the nation we celebrate at Thanksgiving. But I have no doubt that the greatest pure politician this nation has ever produced, Abraham Lincoln, would good-naturedly but pointedly laugh at my stupidity in trying to leverage two existing holidays down to only one.
Happy Thanksgiving to all us Turkeys on the right, on the left, and in between!
Patrick Teegarden has been writing a series of articles for The Statesman on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He can be reached at: Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.