This week marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony of the cemetery for soldiers who fought in the battle earlier that summer in 1863. As a kid growing up about 40 miles away from Gettysburg, we were required to memorize the speech. Of course, that was back in the day when you had to memorize a lot of things – times tables, historic dates, poems, etc. I guess nowadays students are no longer expected to memorize anything since they can look it up on the Internet.
But there is a benefit to memorizing something like the Gettysburg Address. And the reward doesn’t happen right away. Let’s face it; a grammar school kid is not going to fully understand the meaning behind some of the words in Lincoln’s address they are repeating from memorization. As you get older, the meaning behind those words you are carrying around inside your head become more clear and understandable. Then, all of a sudden, you realize the eloquence of our 16th president and his ability to simplify the importance of the battle that had occurred at Gettysburg and what it, and the larger war of which it was a part, meant to our nation.
Lincoln was not the keynote speaker that day at Gettysburg. That honor went to Edward Everett, a former congressman, U.S. senator, governor of Massachusetts and noted orator of his time. He spoke for more than two hours.
In contrast, Lincoln’s message was less than 300 words and only 10 sentences. It took him about two minutes to deliver it. But the power of that short message was tremendous, and it carries on to this day. Lincoln wrote the speech himself. No speech writer was involved and he did not use a teleprompter. Imagine.
The contemporary response to Lincoln’s speech that day was mixed and divided along party lines. Republicans loved it. Democrats did not. Who says times have changed? Regardless of party now, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered a classic, and one of the best speeches of all time.
Lincoln’s message that day was to honor the men who had died in the battle at Gettysburg by dedicating ourselves to the cause for which they had died – the preservation of the country, and for freedom, liberty and equality for all men (and women). And Lincoln realized that it would be an ongoing task to carry on the “unfinished work” to try and perfect the “grand experiment” of our democracy.
150 years seems like a long time. But in reality, it is just a blip on the timeline of history - three generations. Lincoln’s words that day still carry tremendous meaning for our country and for each of us as citizens. We should never forget the sacrifice our prior generations made to bring us to our current position in history. And thanks to President Lincoln’s way with words, we will always have a beacon and a standard to remind us.