Nov. 19, 2009
Today is the 146th anniversary of Lincolns Gettysburg Address. I was reminded of this date yesterday when I took some visitors from Australia and New Zealand to visit the Lincoln Cottage in Northwest Washington. President Lincoln spent almost a quarter of his four-year term at this rural getaway. He and his family spent summers and early fall days there in 1862, 1863, and 1864. It was at this refugea retirement home for old and disabled soldiers--that he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation during that fateful summer of 1862.
Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery that cold November day in 1863. That honor had been reserved to Harvards former president, Edward Everett. Everett was regarded as the greatest orator of that age of great oratory.
Everett, a former Secretary of State, and former ambassador to England, was certainly a distinguished speaker. His resume looked a lot more impressive than prairie lawyer Lincolns did.
Edward Everett had also been the Vice Presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union party in 1860. Lincoln and the Republicans had defeated that ticket and two others to claim the White House in that most important election.
Imagine this: You are President of the United States. You have been invited to give some appropriate remarks at a cemetery dedication, but you are not the main attraction. And the one who will be the main attraction was Number Two on a rival political slate. It would be like President Obama being invited to tee-up a major address to be delivered by Sarah Palin. We could hardly blame the President if he blew the occasion off.
Lincoln did no such thing. He accepted his diminished status eagerly. He was an unusual kind of politician. Once, General George B. McClellan returned from a family wedding and passed by the parlor of his home. There, President Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and Lincolns young aide John Hay had been patiently waiting for their Commanding General to return. McClellan ignored the waiting guests and went right upstairs to bed. Hay asked the President how he could stand being treated with such contempt. Lincoln replied: I will hold General McClellans horse if he will only bring us victories.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln began his brief remarks with an almost biblical cadence: Fourscore and seven years ago. The poetic opening brought his listeners back not to the adoption of the Constitution, but to the Declaration of Independence.
Lincoln had said he never had a single political idea that did not derive from that document. The great civil war Lincoln memorialized in that address was a test of the proposition proclaimed in the Declaration that all men are created equal.
This is, arguably, the central proposition of American history. Its what we are contending over in the health care fight right now. For those who believe that the destruction of human life in the womb is a fundamental right of choice, abortion is a service. And they want to make sure that such services are fully covered in mandatory government-controlled health plans.
For those of us who affirm that the right to life was endowed by our Creator, and enunciated by that Declaration, another Lincoln quote is appropriate. Lincoln in 1858 said the Founders believed that nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon. We believe unborn children are so stamped.
Abraham Lincoln never had to go to Delaware to meet the flag-draped caskets of fallen American soldiers. When he lived at the Soldiers Home, those caskets came to him. Daily, forty bodies of Union soldiers were brought to this quiet refuge and interred on the grounds.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln called for a new birth of freedom for our country. He said we should highly resolve that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Several days later, a letter came to the White House. The Honorable Edward Everett wrote the President: I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.
Today, 146 years later, it would be good to take two minutes to read those immortal words again.