Lincoln’s 271 words sum up our obligation

Uneasy Chair


As a writer, I’m always humbled by how restrained Lincoln was.

He had all the biggest issues on his plate, yet he distilled when you’d expect the opposite.

The top-billed talker at the dedication of a new national cemetery at Gettysburg carried on for two hours. But Lincoln sought to communicate, not to impress.

About two minutes is all Lincoln took and few remember who the other speaker was or what he said.

With Congress mulling impeachment and all of the major social media platforms programmed to maximize profit by exploiting our dopamine triggers, Memorial Day 2019 was the perfect time to re-read the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln faced the awful truth of his war and called us to make it mean something more than mayhem.

The 620,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War are, to this day, almost 50% of all soldier deaths in all U.S. wars. Every American family was touched by loss, so when Lincoln was called to memorialize, he stood with his feet in the dust and reached for a high abstraction: Duty.

We’re not killing our cousins today but we are at odds, and powerful forces seek to widen divisions between us, some for political advantage, but many just for money. Facebook could curb the spread of dishonest and hateful rhetoric, but that would be expensive.

As we ratchet up the war of words this election year, it’s a perfect time to re-read Lincoln’s little masterpiece and resolve ourselves to preserve what really matters: not our personal political party’s fief, but the bedrock things.

Give it a read. The way it continues to resonate is remarkable:

“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.”

(Dean Miller is Editor of The Leader. This week he’d like to apologize for an error in last week’s column. The Somebody mentioned in Miller’s column about Mary Jo Kopechne did spawn a nephew who has become a leading anti-vaccine activist, but that particular nephew was never elected to Congress.)


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