This has been an unusual month for me. For the first time in a long time I’ve reflected on the Gettysburg Address. You know, there used to be a time where you were basically inundated with stories, reflections, memoirs, about significant dates and times in the media, school, church and other institutions about significant moments in history. Unlike today, to use a word, our holidays and historical events were institutionalized and were generally celebrated the same way, all of the time. I didn’t know it as a kid, in a way, we were taught to perpetuate a system…of so-called traditional holidays and events that sustained a social order.
Now, I don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about stuff like this, but I was watching Channel 56, Detroit’s PBS station, airing of a documentary about the Declaration of Independence. Watching the show, I discovered a lot of things about the purpose of the speech, its importance, the expectations and the actual reaction that I didn’t know. It was all pretty dramatic in the PBS way and extremely captivating. It illuminated the varied back stories of many of the players of that time. One key part of history that I previously didn’t know was the importance of the relationship President Lincoln had with his butler, a black man. Even though he was thought to be a free man, he was still subjected to the prejudice and racism of those times. His proximity to the president did not make it any easier for him and there were times when Lincoln had to fight to have him at hand. And this is where I started “reflecting” I went back to a time when I was still in elementary school and my older brother, Isaac came in from his school with the homework assignment to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address.
Now we were the type of kids that shared homework with each other. We would all sit around the dining room table, most of the time with our heads down closely to our papers, pencils scratching on paper…you know the drill…nowadays it would be called “nerdville”, but back then it was called being A-students. Very Eisenhowerish! Anyway, Isaac came home with his assignment and as I recall we all stopped working to listen to Isaac work on the piece. Isaac was a pretty good orator and for the longest time, he was the only one in the family that aggressively pursued the limelight. “Four score and seven years ago…” we heard the starts and stops as he was learning it.
He was doing all right too, improving every step of the way, that is, until our father woke up! My father was a very intelligent man, but sometimes when he would try to help, he could set you back for days, if not months or years. So when daddy awakened, we all scattered and basically Isaac was left by his lonesome to deal with him. I can’t remember everything, but for some reason I remember laughing a lot! My father, who was a smart man when he was sober, always thought he was smarter when he was drunk. And as long as you were not the object of his attention, you were allowed to laugh…secretly. You couldn’t get too carried away with your glee because tomorrow it could be your turn with the beast.
Because of this little recollection, I gave Isaac a call and we discussed this event and the speech. Not surprisingly, he remembers the rehearsals, the speech and the importance of the address. Why don’t we acknowledge the speech in the same universal way today? I have another question for Isaac also. Since Nolan at the time was a pre-dominantly white school, why does he think he was picked to recite the speech?
Arthur, yes I do remember having to recite the speech, and the drama that went into doing it. I do not remember any discussion about how or why I was chosen. On reflection it seems appropriate given the changes going on in our society. When I enrolled at Nolan Jr. High, the school was about 3% African-American so to demonstrate the significance of the Address perhaps I was the default choice. I remember struggling to remember the words. The 267 words of the address seemed like thousands, and all of you were so supportive, listening time and time again, as I recited over and over, the words President Lincoln spoke. And yes there was Daddy “offering” his help. He did offer me some advice that worked, though. He showed me how I could remember the address by singing it instead of reciting it, and yes, it really did help.
The biggest problem wasn’t just reciting the address, it was understanding “it’s” meaning. To understand the address I had to try and understand the meaning of the Civil War. Was this a war about freedom? The right to establish individual and societal freedoms.
Was this a war about equality? The acknowledgement that African-Americans were whole people, not the 3/5th of a person, that they had been designated.
Was this a war about slavery? The right of all people to live free from subjugation by other peoples. There was very little said, or discussed, when it came to the subject of slavery. It was as though, with all the talk of American exceptualism, no one wanted to talk of, or teach about, America’s shame. (I wonder if that would have been considered playing the race-card?)
So with not having an understanding of the war, and not having heard President Lincoln’s original address, I had to establish my own points of emphasis in delivering the speech. I chose the opening line, “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,” and this from the close, “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.
I thought that summarized the speech very well, and for an 11 year old, I was quite proud, but on reflection I see I may have missed the point, perhaps altogether. Yes the beginning and the ending are important, but I believe, the real significance is here, “…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…”
And though the address was given in commemoration of the fallen Union soldiers, it must be noted that the casualties were almost equally divided between two camps. So many people, White people, Black People, Native Americans and others sacrificed so much. At Gettysburg alone more than 7,800 people lost their lives, almost 40,000 were wounded, captured or missing.
Compare those numbers with this, from the start of the war in Afghanistan in October, 2001 until August of 2008 the “wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost 4,683 American lives and resulted in 30,490 wounded. That’s over a period of nearly 8 years.
The Battle of Gettysburg lasted just 3 days, July 1 to the 3rd, 1863.
But more than a remembrance of what had occurred there, President Lincoln used his address to remind America of what we were fighting for:
“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…”
11 year old Isaac didn’t really have a grasp of the significance of what he was reciting then, but I have a better understanding of the Address now. I look around and see the same battles, for the same reasons, being fought today and it saddens me. But the fact that we are still fighting, that we haven’t given up or given in, lifts my spirits and gives me hope. Hope, “—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”
Here is the complete Gettysburg Address:
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 battlefield 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.
- How The Media Would Have Covered The Gettysburg Address (nymag.com)
- 5 things to know about the Gettysburg Address (usatoday.com)
- A Reminder That the Original Gettysburg Address Did Not Include the Words ‘Under God’ (patheos.com)
- Christian Group, Ignorant of History, Complains That Obama Omitted ‘Under God’ from Gettysburg Address Video (patheos.com)