Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gettysburg Address and Proposition to Which We Must Now Be Dedicated

It was 145 years ago today that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at a ceremony dedicating the cemetery to hold those slain in the battle. It is a spot I pass every morning. While the old part of the cemetery has small markers arranged in a circle, the fallen grouped by state, the headstones in the newer section holding the remains of those who fought in later wars glow white with an eerie symmetry in the morning sun. The pattern -- straight, offset lines of smooth regular beveled rectangles -- stands out against the trees and rolling hills of the battlefield on which it is set. This artificiality, the unmistakable touch of man, contrasts with the beauty of Nature and gives a stark sense of the difference between the world we live in and that which we choose to do to it and to each other.

But Lincoln's words, which one cannot help but think of in passing this place, appeal to the other side of our nature, to that which creates worlds of insight, justice, and wisdom. Lincoln spoke of being "dedicated to the unfinished work," pointing to our "poor power to add or subtract" in the face of the struggles of those living and dead who gave their lives to advance freedom. We are part of an ongoing process, a path that we must approach thoughtfully, dedicated to propositions, among them that all people are created equal.

It is not accidental that he stresses the place of this proposition, as he knew well that propositions matter. Lincoln was a man of both words and deeds, a thoughtful actor. At this propitious moment in time, his words are as prescient as ever.

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.
Let's hope that we too are on the verge of a new birth of freedom and let me ask you what are other propositions to which we must now be dedicated in order to bring it about.