One hundred and fifty two years ago today, Abraham Lincoln stood on a podium at a newly created national cemetery for those killed in the battle that had taken place four months earlier, in July. It was the largest battle to have ever taken place on Americansoil, fought over three days and ending with over 50,000 casualties. His “few appropriate remarks” became some of the best-known words in the English language.
Then, the question was what these men had died for. Union? The Constitution? Freedom (and if so, whose)? One-hundred-fifty-two years later, people are still asking those questions and debating the root causes and the consequences of this momentous war.
When the Civil War began, most Northerners would have probably told you they were fighting for the Union. By the end of the war, most–though hardly all–might have said they were fighting for freedom. I bet that all the black soldiers would have said they fought for freedom–freedom for [all] the slaves. I’m sure all the black women wanted the same thing, though they couldn’t fight for it.
The Civil War was a reckoning for the sin of slavery, and a long-overdue one. It was the crisis point following several decades of unrest. And yet, it wasn’t necessarily evident to the people in the moment that this was a massive turning point. Sure, wars are always major events, but as Lincoln later said, both sides expected the war to have “a result less fundamental and astounding” than what it did. He was not the first to see that the war would become not just a war for union but for freedom, but he did see it by November of 1863. Though the Gettysburg is couched in heroic, transcendental terms, it isn’t too difficult to surmise what is meant by “the great cause”. Those who wanted to could comfortably interpret the cause as union, but this requires a kind of willful misreading (though it isn’t a reading that the politician Lincoln probably would have discouraged).
The clearest indication of this is the invocation of the Declaration of Independence. You know, the line about all men being created equal. For four-score-and-seven years, that promise had been hanging there, ringing with great possibility that was left unfulfilled (what Marin Luther King called a “blank check”). Lincoln was, again, not the first to see the almost limitless potential in that simple phrase, but he crystalized it into a pithy, moving, two-minutes speech:
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 here 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.
It’s been said that we see the Declaration of Independence now the way that Abraham Lincoln wanted us to see it. He re-interpreted the meaning of the Declaration, challenging America to take it at face value–all men are created equal. In the decades before the war, it wasn’t read that way at all. It was read as meaning “white men”, or at least “most white men”. And besides, the Constitution was seen as the founding document. The Gettysburg Address recast the founding itself and articulated a new-old purpose for the United States: equality. We see the founding now through the prism of the Gettysburg Address. And all of that in 272 words.