One hundred fifty years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln took a train ride into Pennsylvania. On the journey he reviewed his brief address: just 272 words, dedicating a new national cemetery for the 50,000 soldiers, Rebel and Union alike, who fell there in July 1863. He did not expect his thoughts to endure, but they became his most famous utterance, an affirmation of national purpose and unity. To mark this anniversary, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, gathered comments on the meaning of the Address for today’s America—each comment written in 272 words. Below are five selections from the project. To read more, or to submit one of your own, visit 272 Words.
Reading the Gettysburg Address, I notice first its strong focus on the melancholy task of consecrating a mass grave. “Dedicatory Remarks,” the program stated: Lincoln seizes on dedicate and repeats six variations of that word. To dedicate is to mark as respected or sacred, and on that clear November day he was a mourning patriarch in public and in private. His stovepipe hat still wore a black band for his son Willie, dead of typhoid at eleven.
The shape of the Address is taut yet perfect. Lincoln exercises the power of threes, built in parallel triplets: historical, political, spiritual; past to present to future. In 272 words he confirms the nation’s birth into possibility, mourns the losses of a terrifying present, and promises future rebirth. With a catch: if Freedom is worth any price, then so is Unity. He mentions the Declaration only indirectly and the Constitution not at all. He favors neither side in the ongoing, bloody war. His new compact with the dead and living is intensely personal, an oath of private conscience made national.
Applause interrupted the President’s address five times, remarkable in part because his text is so brief. Not many voices from 1863 sound modern to us, but he speaks hard thoughts stripped to the core as if for the telegraph, or a jury summation. Multum in parvo, saying much in little, is the hardest effect to achieve. Thoreau and Dickinson distill the language of feeling. Sherman and Grant remake the words of war. Lincoln’s heartbreaking gravity, in that late autumn graveyard where the stench of death still hovered, is our greatest voice, and rightly so.
Since the nation’s beginnings, our forefathers have trekked over land and sea to reach refuge on the North American continent.
When they arrived, they did not find those already here greeting them with arms open in welcome. They found themselves disdained, with obstacles placed in their paths. Their purpose was questioned, and their capabilities ridiculed. Those already here viewed the newcomers as threats to the American nation; laws were purposely passed to try to exclude them.
Despite such seemingly ceaseless and harsh travails, these immigrants have kept coming. Their hearts filled with hope, they have populated the cities and the countryside and, over time, they have overcome. They have become a part of those already here.
The 21st-century newcomers are following the same difficult path. Like the earlier travelers, they too want inclusion. Like previous pilgrims, they throw themselves into this great democracy. To come here and to be here is their dream.
All immigrants to America have shared and continue to share the desire for inclusion. They want to hear the whisper of the American dream and sense the throb of its equality. In time with the steady passage of the years, the immigrants’ determined footsteps push forward. They come to this land to benefit, but in the end they contribute more than they receive. It is they who have made this nation great, and they continue to do so today.
It is a never-ending course, the refreshment of the promise of American life, the continued new birth of freedom. May this movement of immigrant feet never cease. May the last great hope of mankind survive for ever more.
—John F. Marszalek
Ulysses S. Grant Association
Seven score and eight years ago a group of terrorists brought forth on this continent a new weapon, political assassination of a duly elected president, conceived in brutality and dedicated to the proposition that the ends justify the means and that not all people have an equal claim to life. Now we are engaged in a great conflict, testing whether our nation or any nation dedicated to the rule of law, can long endure the scourge of terrorism that ranges from the shooting of President Abraham Lincoln and several of his successors to the threatened use of weapons of mass destruction against entire populations. The battlefields of this war include schools, pizza parlors, churches, synagogues, and mosques. We must dedicate ourselves to preventing the murder of public officials, children, and other civilians, so that our nation and other democratic nations might live in peace. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot hallow all the ground on which the victims of terrorism have died. These brave men, women, and children, living and dead, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work of combatting terrorism within the rule of law and without compromising fundamental rights. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that this nation and all nations shall be protected from the threat of nuclear terrorism so that democratic governments of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.
Harvard Law School
How should we mark this day? This day when mourners pressed around the stage at Gettysburg. A day when, as far as the eye could see, broken bodies were dug into the battle-scarred earth. A day dedicated to honoring the dead.
How did we mark this day? With the pomp and bluster of learned men, their pronouncements now largely forgotten. And with the far simpler words of a leader grown haggard with grief and gore, with brutal necessity. These are the words we remember—a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. These are the words we cherish—that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. These are the words that tell us who we are and who we want to be.
On this day, Lincoln called the nation to its duty. For it was the duty of the living, he said, to dedicate themselves to the cause for which so many gave their lives—to nothing less than a new birth of freedom.
How do we mark this day? With words of praise and moments of silent reflection, yes. But who will take to the stage, as Lincoln did, to remind us that the struggle is not yet over? When the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day, when the rights and well-being of the most vulnerable are neglected, when social justice is an abstraction and equality a receding dream, we must recognize that while many battles have been fought and won, the struggle for justice and equality remains our solemn duty.
Abraham Lincoln often insightfully fused memory and mission. At Gettysburg in 1863, he urged listeners to finish the work that heroic, now-silent soldiers bequeathed them. Fifteen months later in his Second Inaugural, Lincoln told his huge audience to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” take care of the needy, and “achieve … a just, and a lasting peace.” The pregnant memories of the past must give birth to future missions.
Lincoln’s important linkages between memory and mission remain alive. Native Americans tenaciously holding to their cultures, Founding Fathers laying their lives on the line, slaves and free Blacks fighting to end slavery, women speaking for their rights, Japanese Americans suffering through relocation, millions of soldiers protecting their freedoms—these and other sustaining memories ought to spur continuing missions for social justice, economic equality, and political unity. The power of the past must move us on to address unanswered and long-lasting imbalances, as well as face new challenges.
Lincoln also tied political needs to moral imperatives. We must aim at the common good, the needs of the nation; not just the wishes of one region or coterie. Lincoln’s challenge to his listeners at the Cooper Union in early 1860—that they must have “FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT”—rings down the hallways of history. The challenges remain on our doorstep. They must not be overlooked, sidestepped, or conveniently explained away. The rich, motivating memories of the past must keep us working at the several missions that Abraham Lincoln put before us a century and a half ago.
—Richard W. Etulain
University of New Mexico
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.