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Wayne Post
  • OUR VIEW: Lincoln’s words still matter

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  • On Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln took to a podium in a field soaked with the blood of thousands of his fellow Americans. He was not the main speaker at the ceremony dedicating a cemetery for those killed at Gettysburg, but the 278 words he spoke that day have been analyzed, memorized and recited by generations who followed.
    Among the analysts is author Garry Wills, whose book, “Lincoln At Gettysburg,” argues that Lincoln’s short speech marked a historic turn in how Americans think of their country. Lincoln rewrote the story of the nation’s founding by making equality — a sentiment in the Declaration of Independence that did not at that time appear in the Constitution — a touchstone to which the nation was dedicated.
    Emancipation and the Civil War amendments pushed by Lincoln remedied the Constitution’s shortcoming. And while much of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was intentionally vague, his description of America’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” became the definition of modern democracy.
    A century and a half later, Americans are still debating what “all men are created equal” means in terms of government policy. We still argue over how to make our politics reflect what is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
    So, for contemporary as well as historic reasons, let us remember what President Lincoln said that day:
    “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.”

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