On July 1, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg commenced. Union and Confederate forces met in and around the Pennsylvania town. When the fighting ended on July 3, there were more casualties suffered than in any other conflict of the Civil War and the most costly toll in US history. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia was turned back by General George Meade’s forces. The war would continue for almost two years, but the outcome was determined when Lee’s second attempt to invade the North was thwarted.
In November, a solemn ceremony was held to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The program that day included several prayers, music, and the featured speaker, Edward Edwards. President Abraham Lincoln was asked to make a few remarks. Edwards’s speech lasted for two hours and contained over 13,600 words. The president spoke for just over two minutes. His “few appropriate remarks” are remembered as one of the greatest speeches in American history.
In those few minutes, President Lincoln reminded those present of the cost of freedom and the necessity to preserve the union, but his most pressing issue concerned the principle of human equality and dignity.
We could use a Gettysburg address today. We could benefit from a statesman like Abraham Lincoln today. Five different versions of his speech survive, most variations written in the president’s own hand. He didn’t have professional speech writers or a teleprompter. The Bliss copy, the only one signed by Lincoln and displayed in the Lincoln Room of the White House, was the fifth draft … “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 …”
He spoke of “unfinished work” and “the great task remaining for us” and “a new birth of freedom.” That work and task still remain. America was far from perfect when the president spoke over the fresh graves at Gettysburg. She is far from perfect now.
In this season of presidential politics, it is tempting, even easy, to become cynical or to check out. We can be jaded by flawed candidates, toxic rhetoric, empty promises, and broken systems. The freedoms that have been bought with such a terrible price are worth preserving, defending, and cherishing.
Happy 240th Birthday, America. May we celebrate our diversity and blessings instead of obsessing over our differences and problems. May we take seriously the unfinished work that remains.